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Contract lessons: Teachers walk out of class for first time in Saskatchewan

Teachers put down their textbooks Thursday and walked away from their classrooms for the first time in Saskatchewan history.

About 12,000 teachers staged a one-day walkout to back contract demands. They held what their union called "study sessions" across the province and more than 2,000 converged on the legislature in Regina for a rally.

They carried placards and chanted "For our future. For our students. For our province."

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Steven Allen, president of the Saskatchewan Teachers' Federation, said union members in the past have withdrawn voluntary services, such as supervising after-school programs, but they've never staged a full strike. Mr. Allen suggested it's a sign of the frustration teachers are feeling at the bargaining table.

"I think it tells you where we're at. It tells you that … teachers have said we need to do this and that's important to us," Mr. Allen said.

Teachers have been in negotiations for nearly a year and without a contract since the end of August. In April, they voted 95 per cent in favour of job action.

Wages are the main issue in the dispute. The union says teachers with a four-year degree who are starting out in Saskatchewan earn $7,560 a year less than the western Canadian average. After 10 years of service, that number increases to $9,423 less than the western.

The federation argues that Saskatchewan is experiencing unprecedented growth and wealth, but teachers are not being included.

Kelvin Lueck, who has been teaching for 26 years, said some of his colleagues have quit because they found other ways to support their families. Mr. Lueck - whose wife is also a teacher - said it can be a tough go, especially for those just starting their career.

"I look at the housing prices alone and I can't see a first- or a second-year teacher even purchasing a home here in Regina," Mr. Lueck said. "I know if my son or daughter was a first-year teacher, I think they'd probably still be living at home with me."

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Mr. Lueck said he'd like to see teachers get a substantial increase.

The union has asked for a 12-per-cent raise over one year. Mr. Allen said it's a starting point for bargaining.

"Is 12 per cent set in stone anywhere? No, it's not. That's what negotiations are about, but we don't want to start low and have to work our way up."

The Saskatchewan School Boards Association says teachers with a four-year degree starting out in Saskatchewan earn $46,419 - $1,000 a year more than the average of all the provinces. The association says its offer of a 5.5-per-cent raise over three years is the best one anywhere in the country.

Education Minister Donna Harpauer said after the rally that both sides need to start talking again.

"There's obviously a substantial gap between the government trustee offer and the 12 per cent, one-year contract that the teachers are asking for," she said. "But those discussions need to happen at the bargaining table."

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Ms. Harpauer said the offer of 5.5 per cent is firm, but there's room to talk on other issues.

The education minister also noted that the offer would make Saskatchewan teachers the second-highest paid in the West.

"We want to ensure that the offer is fair and we believe that second-highest in Western Canada - higher than the Canadian average - is a fair offer. Is there other things that we could be discussing? I think there is and they need to open that," Ms. Harpauer said.

"I know the teachers have implied that unless we say that there is more money for wages, they won't return. We are unconditional. We are at the table without any conditions attached."

When asked if the government is prepared to see a strike in a provincial election year, Ms. Harpauer said: "That will be the choice of the teachers. It will be not an easy thing, but … the teachers have that right."

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall cautioned against making wage comparisons, especially with Alberta.

Teachers there are in the middle of a five-year contract that guarantees them regular pay increases in return for labour peace. It includes a 4.4-per-cent wage hike in September. Some school divisions are complaining that they have to cut positions so they can pay teachers their raise.

"If [Saskatchewan]teachers were to accept the current offer … they would be the second-highest paid teachers in Western Canada, second to the province of Alberta where, because of the contract, they have teachers facing massive layoffs," Mr. Wall said in question period.

"There are also in a number of school districts … [with]teachers working 20 per cent more hours in terms of teaching time or assignable time as a result of that contract."

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