Teachers talk softly, but carry a big stick.

Well, I believe that I was right in predicting at least one of the most interesting educational news stories of 2016.

This Tuesday, October 25th the 9000 or so public school teachers of this province will sit down and vote on whether to provide their leadership with a strong strike mandate. And there is little doubt in this teacher’s mind that the answer, this time, will be a very loud “Yes!”

Now, it should be noted that this vote does not necessarily mean that teachers will walk off the job on October 26th and be marching around your child’s school with picket signs and hastily constructed effigies of Steven McNeil. What it does mean is that for the next six months, their side of the table, which has very much been facing an aggressive and somewhat arrogant approach to bargaining for the last year and a half , will be displaying some aggression of their own. In the terms of one member I recently heard speak on the matter, the liberals walked into this negotiation and laid a pretty big club on the table. At the end of the day, all this strike vote represents is that teachers carry a pretty big club too.

Now, unlike the Liberals, we did not come into this fight with ours in our hands. In fact, it rather feels like we sort of had to rummage around in the closet find the darn thing. I have written before and I stand by the statement that when all this started way back when, the teachers’ asking package was pretty benign. I honestly can’t think of a single controversial item in it that would in any way justify the approach to bargaining the Liberals adopted.

And on Tuesday, I firmly believe teachers of this province, in response, will vote pretty strongly to knock the dust off our big stick, and lay it, too, on the table.

And that begs the question of “Then what?”

The conciliator, (who, by the way, was requested by the province) has filed a report which has set a series of timelines in motion. After those have elapsed there could be any number of job actions by teachers. For their part, the government also has a number of options, including back-to-work legislation.

The thing of it is, however, is that neither side really wants job action. The Liberals do not want to cause the first teachers strike this province has ever seen. Teachers, of course, want to be standing at the front of their classes as opposed to marching in front of their schools.

So what is to be done?

Well, the last time I wrote about this issue, I suggested that an olive branch might be in order. Enter the olive branch.

Last Monday in a surprise move, Education Minister Karen Casey offered to continue to develop a new committee on working conditions outside of the collective agreement. This committee, a form of which was contained within the recently rejected contract, will ostentatiously be set up to deal with teacher concerns. The idea is that when big-ticket issues come up in the classroom, like the collection of data or student assessment, teachers can bring their issues forward and the committee, made up of the NSTU, school boards and the DoEECD, will look to address the issue.

Now,  from the outside looking in, this committee must seem like a wonderful panacea for all that ails us in education. I mean, here you have the employer, in all their benevolence, agreeing to listen to frontline classroom teachers. That is, after all, what they have been asking for, right?

Well, yes. Sort of.

Although this committee has potential to effect positive changes for classroom teachers, there are a number of issues at play here. Really, though, it boils down to the fact that teachers simply don’t trust Karen Casey.

And they have little reason to. Her flip flop on the Drake issue a few years back was, in the minds of many teachers, simply a ploy to deflect public criticism she was facing on comments she had made about snow days. Using her own workforce as a political distraction technique did nothing to endear her.

Teachers feel even more betrayed by her education survey. In that exercise, many teachers got involved because they truly saw it as a vehicle where they could raise these self same workplace concerns they wish to discuss now. The teachers who took the time to fill out those pages were trusting that Casey would take their concerns seriously. The exclusion of any active teachers from her “education panel” at the time and the resulting report that gave as much weight to the opinions of non educators as it did to concerns of frontline classroom teachers left a fairly sour taste.

And then, of course, there is the Action Plan itself. Just since September, the DoEECD has enacted at least three new initiatives that have increased the workload of teachers. There is a new computer programming curriculum, a new grade 2 math assessment, and a new “enhanced” reporting method for Individualized Program Plans, or IPPs s they are commonly called. Each of these have been rolled out with ridiculously insufficient professional development and under even more ridiculous time frames. And each comes with an expectation that teachers will, somehow, now be responsible for implementing them.

Any one of these, in and of themselves, would lead even the most staunch Karen Casey supporter to question her claims that she is listening to teachers. Taken collectively, it is pretty easy to see why front line educators are a little less than enthused by her announcement of a committee to fix the problems that, in many cases, her department was responsible for creating in the first place. (Rather begs the question of why it took two contract rejections and the threat of a strike by teachers for her to get the message that something should be done, but I digress.)

To her credit, Casey has not been all bad. Getting guidance into the elementary schools and committing (to some extent at least) to class caps have certainly been seen by teachers as a step in the right direction. But as the rejection of the last contract indicated, these measures have done little to reassure teachers that their concerns are being heard. Under Casey’s watch, little has improved for teachers, and in some instances, things have actually gotten worse.

That brings us to the vote on Tuesday

As I see it, the best thing that could happen for education in this province on that day would be for teachers to vote with a resounding “Yes” to a strike mandate. Not so much so that we can immediately walk out the door, but so that government and citizens alike will understand that something is causing enough strife in the daily lives of teachers that they are willing to walk if things do not change.

Then, with that club prominently displayed on the table, the teachers of this province will be in a strong position to demand action.

Because if the government is truly committed to listening to teachers, here is their chance to prove it.

If, as Casey suggests, this committee is an honest effort to fix some of these issues, then teachers will need to see results, and quickly. I can literally think of about a half-dozen things off the top of my head that she could do even before the committee meets to show that she is serious about effecting positive change for teachers. Putting the word “optional” in front of any number of initiatives would be a show of good faith, and would, incidentally, cost nothing.

If, however, the committee fails to improve working conditions within a reasonable time frame, well then, that will be a very different story indeed.

And even the most reluctant strike supporter will be able to feel justified in taking job action on the basis of yet another broken promise.

Of course, Casey doesn’t bear all the blame for this mess. McNeil’s austerity budget certainly isn’t helping matters. The longer McNeil refuses to budge on money, the less patience teachers are showing. Had he left the service award alone in the first place, he would probably have gotten away with his wage freeze back in 2015. As this dispute drags on, however, teachers, it seems, are feeling less and less accommodating when it comes to accepting zeros.

By about 8:00 pm on Tuesday, we will have a much clearer picture of where this issue stands. And, as I mentioned, all signs are pointing to a very strong “Yes”. However, for those few teachers who might still be undecided, I would leave you with this final thought.

It is my belief that voting “Yes” to support a strike mandate allows teachers to hope that this time, finally, they will be empowered to change the education system in this province for the better.

It is also my belief that voting “No”, although perhaps the path of least resistance, grants them the power to change absolutely nothing.

Let’s hope that when teachers do place their big stick on the table, it lands with a rather resounding “Thump!”.

Originally published in Localxpress.ca on Sunday, October 23

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Filed under Bill 148, Education Policy, Educational Change, Educational commentary, Job action, Public education, Quality education, Teacher strike