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Bill ending Nova Scotia teachers' contract dispute expected to pass

Bill ending teachers' dispute in home stretch

HALIFAX — A government bill aimed at ending the 16-month long contract dispute involving Nova Scotia's 9,300 public school teachers is expected to pass Tuesday following a marathon session of the provincial legislature.

Introduced last Tuesday, Bill 75 entered its final reading more than two hours after the house convened at 12:01 a.m.

The two opposition parties opened proceedings by criticizing legislation they say takes away the collective bargaining rights of teachers.

Opposition Progressive Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie told the house that while the process to ram through the bill by the Liberal majority was heavy handed, it was positive in that it had served to "ignite a fire of political engagement" across the province.

"Because of the actions of this government, thousands of Nova Scotians have reclaimed the power of their democratic voice," said Baillie. "That's about all that is good about Bill 75."

NDP house leader Sterling Belliveau used his time to make a last appeal to Liberal members to vote their conscience on the bill.

"Listen to the many teachers who have descended on this house in the last week and vote No on Bill 75," said Belliveau. "It is not too late to do the right thing."

Teachers went on a one-day strike Friday in protest of legislation they say doesn't provide the help they need in the classroom. It was the first time in the 122-year history of their union that its membership had walked off the job.

The new law would bring to an end the teachers' work-to-rule campaign, which began Dec. 5. It also imposes a four-year contract that contains a three per cent salary increase and incorporates many of the elements included in the first two tentative agreements rejected by union members.

The Liberal government adopted one minor amendment during proceedings that will see an arbitrator used if a dispute arises between members of a council being created to come up with recommendations to improve working conditions in the classroom.

Part of the last deal rejected by the union, the provision would have allowed the arbitrator to rule on issues worth up to $250,000 a year. Liberal house leader Michel Samson said the government was doubling the amount to $500,000 and that any member of the 14-member council would now be allowed to trigger the arbitration process.

Under questioning in the legislature, Premier Stephen McNeil also revealed the government saved about $3.4 million in the one-day labour disruption. He said the money would be used for student grants across the province.

McNeil was asked by Baillie whether the province was setting aside funds for a court challenge the union has vowed to launch.

"By his reckless actions the premier has committed the taxpayers of Nova Scotia to years of legal challenges and millions of dollars in legal costs," Baillie said.

He pointed out that prior challenges in British Columbia and Ontario had resulted in successful lawsuits.

However, McNeil expressed confidence the bill would withstand a legal challenge by the union.

"We had three different agreements with two different executives of the teachers' union," he said. "Each and every time we went to the table...we changed the agreement providing more support...

"I think even the lawyer representing the teachers' union said this piece of legislation will stand the test."

McNeil has said that after the legislation is passed the government will focus on the committee for classroom improvement, which will get $20 million over two years to spend on classroom improvements.

The union has said the council's composition of four government representatives, one union co-chair and nine classroom teachers selected by school board superintendents doesn't give the union enough say.

The Canadian Press