Education featured Labour

What a difference a year makes. Teachers and government workers say no to bullies

I originally wrote this story for the excellent  It is brought up to date and an imprecise reference to Bill 148 is fixed. 

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – Nova Scotia’s wild and wacky world of labour relations just got even stranger.

Twice now the Nova Scotia Teachers Union (NSTU) leadership recommended that its members accept a negotiated deal, and twice the teachers said no thanks. On October 25 the teachers backed that rejection up with a 96 percent strike mandate.

Stephen McNeil has triumphed in public-sector labour negotiations. He has succeeded where his four predecessors failed, leaving the unions cowed and powerless. This is the McNeil government at its best. Graham Steele.

It didn’t start out like that.

What a difference a year makes.

Labour Day 2016. Photo Robert Devet

In November 2015 the McNeil government was ready to uncork the champagne. It had negotiated agreements with both the NSTU and the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union (NSGEU). 

Mind you, negotiated under the tacit threat of an imposed contract through brute legislative force if the government didn’t like the result. But still, there were these two agreements grudgingly endorsed by the union leadership.

Just get the membership to ratify, and Bob’s your uncle.

“Stephen McNeil has triumphed in public-sector labour negotiations. He has succeeded where his four predecessors failed, leaving the unions cowed and powerless. This is the McNeil government at its best: learning from past mistakes, planning how to avoid the same fate, then executing on the plan,” wrote former NDP finance minister turned pundit Graham Steele at the time.

If it weren’t for these pesky union members McNeil would have pulled it off too.

First the teachers rejected the deal in a vote in December 2015. 94 percent of the members cast their ballots, 61 per cent voted against the contract offer.

Back to the table the parties went, and in September of this year a new tentative agreement was reached,and once again the union executive endorsed the result. The problem was that the new offer was much like the old offer teachers had rejected earlier.

If that didn’t make teachers angry enough, there was now actual legislation, Bill 148, that if and when proclaimed would impose a four-year wage package, not just upon teachers but on all civil servants. All 75,000 of them.

This time 70 percent of the teachers voted no.

And now the 96 percent strike vote shows that the teachers mean business.

What do the teachers want?

Teachers in Nova Scotia have lost confidence in education minister Karen Casey. They’ve been talking about their issues for a long time, and feel purposely ignored by a minister who engages in teacher bashing any time it is politically convenient. Removing the ability to bargain fairly and freely wasn’t building much trust either.

What they want is better working conditions, more money for education at a classroom level, and a fair contract.

Even a casual browse of a new blog that features anonymous teachers testimonials offers a sense that a bureaucracy infatuated with standardization, jargon and the usual grab back of neo-liberal innovations has run amok.

“Curriculum decisions, scheduling and guides that insist on regimented pacing despite the teacher’s evaluation of her students’ readiness to move on, give the lie to the party line that teachers’ input is valued,” writes one such teacher.

“It undercuts the professionalism of the teacher. Instead of believing that we can solve problems, we are told to turn to outside experts, and those experts make suggestions that we know we can’t apply without additional support,” she writes.

More concretely teachers are asking for things like caps on class size for junior high and high school levels, and more support for students who require individualized supports.  

Beyond that, teachers aren’t happy with the monetary aspects of the province’s offer.

And no wonder. A wage freeze for the first two years and a total three per cent bump in pay over the last two amounts to an actual wage decrease, given inflation. Teachers are also upset that the long term service award will be frozen for current civil servants, and will be non-existent for new workers.  You can’t just remove a benefit that was bargained for, they say.

What next?

What comes next for the teachers is anybody’s guess. Teachers will be in a position to strike sometime in early December. Maybe all the teachers walk off the job at that time, maybe we will see rotating strikes, or a refusal by teachers to do anything beyond teaching class. The teachers have many options.

But so does the government. It can simply proclaim Bill 148, impose the original austerity contract on teachers (and 75,000 fellow civil servants), and call it a day. There are other weapons in this government’s arsenal, and so far it hasn’t shied away from using them.

The NSTU has agreed to join a committee to talk working conditions with the government and the school boards. How that unfolds remains to be seen.

A conciliation request by the NSTU was returned by the government with conditions attached, and went nowhere. Yesterday’s subsequent request by the union to appoint a mediator has not yet received a responsefrom the government.

Meanwhile, almost one year later, the roughly 7600 NSGEU provincial government workers still haven’t voted on their tentative collective agreement.  The NSGEU has finally scheduled a vote for December 12-14 of this year, on a deal that is every bit as lousy as the one offered to the teachers.

It looks like resistance to the government’s austerity agenda and heavy-handed bargaining tactics is infectious.

After consulting with the membership the NSGEU executive has reversed its earlier recommendation to accept the tentative agreement. That doesn’t bode well for the Liberals.

A fine mess

So here we have it. A teachers union with an overwhelming strike mandate, and at this stage with lots of support from the general public. An energized and radicalized NSGEU membership about to follow suit. 

No matter how it all ends, it means a lot of angry workers to deal with for a McNeil government that will probably head into an election sometime next year.

Not quite the triumph in public-sector labour negotiations pundits were writing about a year ago.

What a difference a year makes.

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