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Larry Haiven speaks at Law Amendments: Taking the red cord away from teachers

Today’s remarks by Larry Haiven at the Law Amendments Committee regarding Bill 75 to remove the right to strike from teachers.

I am Professor Emeritus at Saint Mary’s University and a recognized specialist in industrial relations and public sector collective bargaining. I’m also father and grandfather to kids who have been  through the education system.

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I’m also a member of the steering committee of Nova Scotia Parents for Teachers, with which I’m sure you’re familiar. Our Facebook page alone has over 20,000 members (1,000 in the last few days) who have rallied round the teachers. I daresay there are many more out there.

A decade ago my partner Professor Judy Haiven and I wrote a monograph entitled Pulling the Red Cord when a previous Nova Scotia government threatened to take away the right to strike. In it we tried to explain what was happening in public service collective bargaining. It focused on health care workers, but with just three or four changes, it is easy to paraphrase it to teachers. Here is a summary:

Lean production” is a   metaphor or lens through which we can view developments in the management of public education. Pioneered by Toyota executive Taiichi Ohno in the 1950s, the key strategy is to reduce resources in the workplace deliberately to the point that breakdowns will actually occur. By analyzing the breakdowns, management is   consequently better able to keep production going with the greatest speed and the fewest resources possible.

In management-by-stress systems, extra resources are considered as wasteful as producing scrap.

The gospel of “lean” has expanded well beyond private-sector auto manufacturing. It has migrated into our public services.  At first so popular in manufacturing, lean was hard to resist in the public sector where, fueled by consultants, it became known as the “New Public Management.” As Canada moved into the fiscal panic of the 1990s, the model was irresistible to our public sector.

A critical part of many lean production lines is called the “Andon System.” Above production lines, there are often three lights – green, amber and red – which indicate the status of the line.

A key management principle is to give line workers power over the lights. The Toyota originators believed that nobody, not even management, knew when the system was failing better than the front-line workers.

Here’s how the Andon System works. When the line is running smoothly, the green light glows. But lean management’s goal is not to have the green light glowing all the time. If that is happening, management either speeds up the line, or withdraws resources, or both. When the line comes under stress, the workers are supposed to pull a cord so that the amber light glows. This alerts management that line failure may follow.

If the line becomes overburdened and serious quality issues will ensue, workers are often not only empowered, but encouraged, to pull the other cord. A red light goes on and work on the production line stops until the situation can be rectified. If the switch from green to amber signals that the line is approaching maximum efficiency, the switch from amber to red signals that the line is overloaded. But if workers cannot activate the red light, then it is much more difficult to know if the pursuit of production efficiencies is in fact compromising the quality of the product.

An education system is not a car factory. But, if anything, the need for warnings of impending overload are more important in education, not less. Teachers must have a way of indicating that the conditions under which they work do not overstress them or the quality of education delivery. Thus, in the education system, the red cord can be said to be the power of teachers to threaten to, and if necessary, withhold their labour.

The proposal by the Nova Scotia government to take away the right to strike is analogous to taking the red cord away from teachers. What started as metaphor has become reality as governments are now openly preaching and using the phrase “lean” to attack public workers. And in this case, that is an injustice not only to teachers but to students and parents, indeed, to us all.

Let me conclude by quoting from the eloquent decision of the Supreme Court of Canada in the right to strike case (Saskatchewan Federation of Labour v. Saskatchewan).

“This Court has long recognized the deep inequalities that structure the relationship between employers and employees, and the vulnerability of employees in this context. While strike activity itself does not guarantee that a labour dispute will be resolved in any particular manner, or that it will be resolved at all, it is the possibility of a strike which enables workers to negotiate their employment terms on a more equal footing….

“The ability to strike … allows workers, through collective action, to refuse to work under imposed terms and conditions. This collective action at the moment of impasse is an affirmation of the dignity and autonomy of employees in their working lives.”

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