On October 4th, the teachers of this province will sit down collectively and make very personal, very individual decisions on the latest contract offer from the McNeil Liberals.
Voting “Yes” to the contract will give teachers a 3.03 % raise over the next 4 years, and a promise of a better voice with which to express concerns around such things as working conditions and systemic flaws. It will also mean the loss of a service award, which for most teachers is valued at 1% of their salary multiplied by the number of years they have taught, up to a maximum of thirty years. This amount is paid out upon death or retirement.
A “No” vote could result in any number of outcomes, from job action, to back to work legislation, to major negative changes in the everyday working conditions for teachers.
And I’m here to tell you, at this point, it’s anyone’s ball game.
Now, from the outside looking in, it must be hard to fathom why any teacher in this current economic and political climate would even consider voting “No” to this deal. I mean, a service award is nice, certainly, but 1% hardly seems like a hill to die on. And these days, service awards are a throwback to a bygone era.
As to the salary increase, yes, 3% over 4 years is not a great deal of money, (practically a roll back when removal of the service award is taken into consideration) but teachers do ok, financially. Yes, they work hard and yes they have to achieve numerous degrees to get into the profession, but in these tough economic times, getting any form of raise is a good thing. Why would they possibly even risk voting “No”?
To truly understand why I believe this vote will be close, we need to go back to the beginning.
When the Liberals first came into power back in 2013, they decided that Nova Scotia needed a government that was going to be “fiscally responsible”. Nova Scotia, as we all know, is a have-not province, and with increasing costs, the McNeil Liberals set out to balance the books. There were broken promises, yes, particularly around the film tax credit, but they were not the first party to flip-flop after winning an election. And there were some questionable decisions around MLA salaries and pensions, with McNeil increasing the first and reducing the time needed to earn the second, but nothing an election couldn’t fix. There were even questions of patronage appointments, but again, nothing that hasn’t happened before. So, if this was the entire story, if this were simply a government locked in the throes of a standard, day-to-day austerity mandate, a “No” vote would make no sense.
Enter Karen Casey.
On the heels of the election victory, Premier McNeil appointed former Tory now turned Grit Karen Casey to the portfolio of Minister of Education. Casey lost no time in proclaiming that the education system in Nova Scotia was failing our students. She assembled a panel of hand-picked experts and issued a public opinion survey on the state of education in the province. The panel was conspicuously void of actively practicing educators, and included one member who has strong ties to education’s privatization movement. The survey was distributed, and despite its obvious penchant for asking what people thought about education, rather than what they knew, it was used by the committee to make recommendations to the minister.
And, here’s where things get dicey.
You see, a number of the recommendations that were made by the committee to the minister appeared rather out of nowhere. They had not been suggested in the original survey questions, but rather seemed to be extrapolations of the panel’s own conclusions. Then, when the Minister’s Action Plan was released, several of the most contentious items had made the leap from mere opinions to a focus for the plan. Referred to now by teachers as simply “Page 17”, the plan included an examination of a series of items that, if enacted, would have a serious impact on the working conditions of teachers. Some of them were already protected by the current Teachers’ Provincial Agreement, achieved by years of good faith bargaining, and now, based on a public opinion poll, the Minister wanted to revisit them.
Neither of these movements in and of themselves are particularly noteworthy. Teachers have faced austerity budgets before, and they have grown accustomed to a string of education ministers who, for some reason or other, believe they need to enact educational initiatives to drive change.
However, the challenge here was that the Liberal government wanted to do both at the same time.
And then came the contract.
In late 2015, the Government presented teachers with an outline of what they were looking to discuss in a new contract. Much to teachers’ surprise and chagrin, just about every detail that had been outlined on page 17 of the Minister’s plan had now made it into the asking package. From looking at the way professional development was done to whether administrators should stay in the union, the government put in writing that they wanted to revisit a number of working conditions provisions which had been achieved through collective bargaining, and presumably make changes to them. (They were thoughtful enough, however, to include an entire page in the back of the package about how they were committed to a better system and fair collective bargaining.)
When the details of the final contract offer were revealed to teachers in late November of 2015, the package had changed somewhat. After a series of negotiations (that reportedly did not include any teachers), the government was willing to remove all the contentious page 17 issues from the table, as long as teachers accepted the austerity package. And they threatened legislation if the teachers did not accept.
In short, the Government seemed to be saying “We could make your jobs harder, but we won’t if you take this package. Oh, and by the way, if you don’t take it, we will make you.”
To say that the whole process rubbed teachers raw would be an understatement. And on December 1st, 2015, in an unusual show of grassroots anger, teachers voted to reject the offer, against the recommendations of their own leadership.
The Liberals then created Bill 148, and the process began again.
The next few months saw negotiations between both sides, however, only in a loose sense of the word. The entire process was coloured by Bill 148. And for her part, the Minister of Education continued on with her Action Plan, announcing initiatives like a plan to offer coding across all grades and introducing a new set of teaching standards that were created to hold teachers more accountable.
Now, to her credit, not everything from the plan was bad. Teachers, for example, were quite happy to see class sizes capped. However, class caps do not necessarily makes a teacher’s job easier; class caps make a teacher’s job possible. Having smaller classes doesn’t mean that teachers are spending less time with kids, it means they are spending the same time with fewer kids, increasing their ability to individualize programming and improve learning. However, if class caps come hand in hand with other initiatives that actually eat up that time, (such as learning how to implement new coding curriculum) then no one is any further ahead.
So, that brings us to now.
Last week, a new contract offer was presented to the teachers of this Province by the same Liberal government. Same raise offer, same removal of the service award, same offer to remove those contentious “come from nowhere” page 17 articles, same Bill 148.
In exchange, teachers were offered items around working conditions which, in the opinion of some, have little teeth, and should probably have been happening in the first place.
And teachers are not happy.
However, there is a different tone to the unrest this time. Teachers are just as mad, have no doubt. But last time round, many teachers who were angry seemed to not have the correct information around what a “No” vote could mean. They, as I wrote at the time, were simply looking to “punch someone in the mouth”. However, this time, there is a very different feel.
Teachers are angry, but they are informed. They understand the ramifications of a “No” vote, and many are willing to vote “No” anyway.
The McNeil Liberals had numerous opportunities along the way to stop this train. Had they made a real commitment to improving working conditions (say, increasing prep time, perhaps?) or had they moved a bit on their austerity budget, (say, not touching the service award) we would probably already have a deal.
However, for this government, movement, it seems, is not an option.
Now, I have no idea how close the vote will actually be on the 4th. I can only speak to my sense of it. And, I will not spend time in this piece trying to convince teachers to go one way or the other. This decision is way too important for folks to choose based on the opinions of others. However, I will leave you with this.
The service award is low hanging fruit. It is an easy “first target” along a very long continuum towards eroding benefits. The next time this, or any government, wants to make political hay on the backs of teachers, what will they come for?
I refer you to page 17.