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Teachers’ strike at NSCC looming

With the imminent threat of a teacher’s strike at the Nova Scotia Community College (NSCC), one student, Eric Lortie, is concerned for his educational future.

“My feelings towards the strike probably mirror that of most students. We’re all a mix of apprehensive, angry and upset. No one who takes their education seriously thinks it’s a good thing,” says Lortie, a first-year information technology student at NSCC.

There are more than 25,000 NSCC students at 13 campuses across Nova Scotia who would be affected by the strike.

“I have mixed feelings as to how it’s been handled by the administration and staff. I’ve probably been harder and less supporting of the faculty than I should, but that’s because a strike vote is, to my mind, them saying, ‘We are more important than the students.’ Although, from their point of view, they are.”

There are 760 faculty members and 165 support staff at NSCC who could take to the picket lines on Oct. 20 if an agreement can’t be made with the administration at the community college.

The teachers want more money. The school’s administration says they don’t have any for them, but the province might. The province isn’t saying much of anything yet. Meanwhile, students across the province are standing on the sidelines, waiting to see if they can keep going to class.

NSCC and the Nova Scotia Teacher’s Union (NSTU) have been at the bargaining table for 16 months trying to negotiate wages, and teachers have been left without a contract since Aug. 31.They want a 2.9 per cent wage increase for two years, and improved health benefits. It would be the same deal that public school teachers in Nova Scotia received last year.

Negotiations reached a stalemate in June, and as a result, on Sept. 22, more than 90 per cent of union members voted in favour of a strike. They have been in a legal position to strike since Sept. 25. There is, however, still a chance that the strike can be averted. If so, classes can resume as usual after Sept. 20.

Alexis Allen, President of NSTU speaks for the teachers and support staff for the community college. She has given an ultimatum to the administration and the province: agree to binding arbitration, or the strike is on.

“We’re asking that the minister (of education) and the community college agree to binding arbitration, and we call the strike off,” says Allen.

If the college and the department of education agree to enter into binding arbitration with the teacher’s union, it means that an independent third party would settle the dispute, and all three parties would have to live with what was decided.

“It has never been our intent to disrupt the education of 25,000 students and impact the economic viability of the Nova Scotia Community College,” says Allen. “We just want a fair and equitable settlement for our members, however that can be achieved.”

But the administration at NSCC says that there is not enough money in the budget to afford what the faculty is asking for.

“They feel it’s a fairness principle,” says Gina Brown, director of communications and marketing for NSCC. “But we have a finite amount of money in terms of our mandate, so that’s where we are.”

She says the community college administration will consider entering into binding arbitration.

“Our goal is to avoid a strike, it’s as simple as that. So we’re willing to look at all options. We are willing to look at binding arbitration, but there’s one thing that we all have to keep in mind with binding arbitration, is that it will require the consent of three parties. That’s NSTU, NSCC and the government. If an arbitrator is assigned, we all have to accept the outcome of the arbitration. If that’s the case we all have to live with the outcome and that means that the government might have to provide more resources to meet that outcome, whatever it is.”

The community college is looking to the provincial government for funding assistance.

“We have a finite amount of money from the government and that’s what we’ve got to work with. We just don’t have any room there. We have to work within our fiscal means.”

The provincial government is trying to stay out of negotiations, but Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter has stated that they will consider entering into binding arbitration.

“With anytime there’s potential for a strike, we’re concerned,” says Dan Harrison, media spokesperson for the Department of Education. “That’s why we’re encouraging both sides to get together and try to reach an agreement. We have a lot of respect for the collective bargaining process and this is a process that we shouldn’t be subjecting ourselves in.”

The province has a $54 million reserve set aside in the budget for anticipated wage increases of public servants, but Harrison couldn’t say if the government would consider using some of the funds to help teachers.

If the strike does happen, the community college administration says it has a contingency plan for students. Even though classes would be suspended, some resources would still be made available.

“We will keep the campuses open wherever possible, and the things that would be open would be libraries, learning commons, computer labs, cafeterias, book stores, centres for student success, and some classrooms wherever possible. But there would be no classes held, so what we’re going to do is encourage students to keep working away at their work. They won’t have any faculty involved, but they can join study groups and work on assignments and things like that. So we’re going to do everything we can to help maintain some place for them to go if they require that, but it’s not obligatory – it’s a service to them,” says Brown.

It is too soon to tell if the administration would have to refund students’ tuition in the event of a prolonged strike, but all parties involved hope that it won’t have to come to that.

“We would really love to avoid a strike,” says Brown. “I mean we’ve got 25,000 learners that we’re trying to help receive an education so that’s our big focus.”

When it comes right down to it, no wants a strike. Teachers and support staff would be left without students, the community college campuses would be left unproductive and the province could lose a significant portion of its educated workforce. If all parties can meet in the middle and come to an agreement soon, then a strike can be avoided, and students like Eric Lortie can keep going to class.

“This whole ordeal seems unnecessary,” says Lortie. “They’re debating teachers’ salaries as if it were a significant amount of money, when compared to how much this will cost us (the students) in other ways.

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