HALIFAX -- Nova Scotia public school teachers have voted decisively to reject another tentative contract agreement, setting the stage for wider public sector labour tensions with the Liberal government.
One member of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union who voted "No" said he was determined to send a clear message that teachers are willing to take job action and to fight threatened legislation that would impose wage freezes on all public sector workers.
"We were perceived as being weak, jelly-kneed and that we would bend to their pressure and their will and that hasn't proven to be the case," said Paul Wozney, a high school teacher in Halifax who sits on a union local executive.
It is the second time rank-and-file members rejected the executive's recommendation to accept a contract.
The Tuesday vote saw 70 per cent of the 9,000-member teachers' union voting down the deal, with a 94 per cent turnout. Teachers rejected an earlier, four-year settlement in a vote last November by a 61 per cent margin.
The teachers may also become the first union to resist the province's yet-to-be-proclaimed public sector salary bill, which would impose a wage freeze for two years, followed by a three per cent raise over the next two years.
That's the issue that Wozney says he and other teachers are willing to do battle with, confounding the government's expectation that the teachers' union would "bend to their will" more willingly than more militant unions representing health and other public sector employees.
"A lot of people voted 'No' because they don't believe that (Premier) Stephen McNeil has the right to impose unconstitutional legislation that erodes our charter rights," he said.
McNeil -- whose party has been riding high in the polls -- has repeatedly said that the province is determined to balance its budget, and is no longer willing to send labour disputes with public sector workers to third party arbitration.
Last year his government drafted the Public Services Sustainability Act, which would impose the wage restraints. However, the bill has remained as a threat that would only be imposed if the province couldn't achieve its goals at the negotiating table.
The Nova Scotia Federation of Labour has said the bill bypasses workers' rights to free collective bargaining, and is contrary to the Supreme Court of Canada ruling that found the right to collective bargaining was protected under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Wozney says the teachers' vote will bring the labour conflict between the public sector workers and the Liberal government to a head.
"We're prepared to do what it takes to fight them. That's what this vote says," he said.
Liette Doucet, the union president who supported the tentative agreement, says she won't resign.
Instead, she said she intends to take up the battle with the province on behalf of members. She also says the executive will soon consider whether a strike vote will be held and when to trigger a public relations campaign against the government.
In the meantime, the province's education minister swiftly made clear the Liberals don't intend to resume bargaining.
On Tuesday night, Karen Casey said the province is "very disappointed" with the outcome of the vote.
"We will not be returning to the table, we now await the union's decision," she said.
In a news conference on Wednesday, Casey said it's too early to say if the province would pass anti-strike legislation or invoke Bill 148 to bring in wage restraint on public sector workers.
"Bill 148 will not get us a new agreement. We know Bill 148 has been passed in the legislature, but we are not looking at 148. We are waiting for the teachers to get back and let us know what their next steps are," she said.
The province says it has put additional funding into education and sticking to its fiscal plan allows it to continue investing in public education.