Well, this is all feeling very familiar.
Last Tuesday, the almost 10,000 public school teachers of this province sat down and voted on whether to accept or reject the latest offer on the table from the McNeil liberals. The offer contained the exact same wage package from a year ago, 3.03% over 4 years, and removed the service award, a 1% banking of teachers salaries for up to 30 years, paid out on death or retirement. In exchange, the government offered to remove some rather contentious issues from the table (which they had put there in the first place) and contractually guarantee some small improvements around working conditions.
And, much like they did in December of 2015, in another remarkable show of grass-roots dissent, and against the recommendation of the NSTU leadership, the teachers of this province responded with a resounding “No”.
Now, this situation has got just about everyone scratching their head. The news media has been trying to make sense of the issue, Premier McNeil seems only focussed on not going to arbitration, Minister Casey says she has no interest in returning to the bargaining table and is waiting for “The Union” to make the next move. Even consummate educational yammer yap Paul W. Bennett seems unable to string together an articulate explanation of the situation. (In a recent interview on a local radio talk show, Bennett suggested everything from conspiracy theories around standardized testing to both side having “secret hidden agendas”)
However, I think that everyone here is missing the point, and in many ways that is the point. Teachers in this province are taking a stand. And they are doing so because for far too long government after government after government has missed the point.
You see, teachers are a pretty well-educated group of people. We know that in this economic climate, any raise is a good one. We also know that if we walk out on our students with salary as our primary issue, we will probably get nowhere with the public. If this was just about the wage package, teachers would have signed off ages ago.
Then there is the service award. Again, teachers understand basic Nova Scotia economics. In fact , some teachers teach basic Nova Scotia economics. They also understand that many folks see service awards as a throwback to a bygone era. And 1% hardly seems worth striking for.
So, the service award, although a sore point for many teachers, was probably not the deal breaker.
That leaves us the obvious question. What caused your lovely neighbourhood elementary music teacher, who does the Christmas concert every year, to reject this offer? What is so important that the amazing grade 7 Science teacher who coaches your daughter’s volleyball team is willing to strike? What is causing so much grief that the High School English teacher, who directs the musical every year, who is adored by the kids he obviously loves and cares about, what is causing him to risk all that by voting “No”?
Well, for my money, it is that very lack of understanding that is the point.
Why, I have to wonder, is no one else in this whole affair asking “Why did teachers actually vote ‘No'”?
You see, at the end of the day, something must be wrong. Everyday, hard-working, community minded teachers from Yarmouth to Cape North stood up against this contract. These teachers come from all sorts of areas, they teach inner city and rural, they are from new schools and old, they are from elementary and junior high and high school. Yet more of them rejected this latest and supposedly improved offer than rejected the original.
And this in not a case of “The Union” being the evil beast here. This is not a well-organized central protest spearheaded by union leadership to battle the government. In fact, “The Union” was the entity that brought the contract to the teachers and recommended they accept it in the first place. Twice.
But rank and file teachers said “No”.
Minister Casey can bury her head in the sand of her “Education Action Plan” all she wants. Despite all her boasting about how she is listening to teachers, there is no way that in a climate of true collaboration, consultation and trust that teachers vote “No” on this deal. As for the Premier, he can brandish Bill 148 all he wants. Teachers know he can enact that Bill if he decides to do so. (Despite McNeil’s claims in an on air radio interview on October 7 that Bill 148 does not apply to teachers, the bill actually mentions the word “teacher” about a dozen times.)
And they still said “No”.
Nothing the Minister of Education has done in the past two years has actually helped frontline classroom teachers enough for them to trust and accept these terms. Nothing the Premier has done in the past two years has scared them enough for them to trust and accept these terms. And nothing their own leadership has done in the past two years has swayed them enough to trust and accept these terms.
So I ask again, “Why did teachers actually vote ‘No'”?
I could tell you. When it comes to the real issues impacting schools, I could talk all day. So could most teachers. I could talk Tienet and Powerschool and data collection and PLCs and School Improvement Plans and attendance policies that don’t work and provincial assessments that require one on one time with students for which no subs are provided and pressure to utilize technology when the wireless does not work and roll outs of new curriculum without proper training and report card comments…
Teachers have been talking. And expressing concerns.
And if someone were actually listening, we would not be here today.
Despite all these issue, (and many, many more) what amazes me the most is that it was not teachers demands that brought us to this pivotal juncture. When the NSTU and the government first exchanged packages, teachers weren’t really looking for anything. Certainly nothing that should cause a government to want to open up our entire agreement and threaten every benefit we have ever won through collective bargaining.
Because, you see, teachers are used to governments not listening. They are used to poorly thought out top down initiatives enacted for political gain. They are used to poor working conditions, helicopter parents, and hungry kids. And they will usually tolerate it all in relative silence.
But when the McNeil Liberals opened this round of bargaining, they came in with guns blazing, and treated every benefit we have as if it were an undeserved perk. As if we should be thankful that we are given time to set up our classrooms for kids instead of having to do it on the weekend. As if we should be thankful that we are allowed to do professional development during the school year and not during an unpaid holiday. That we should be thankful to the Minister of Education for capping class sizes, as if that is a benefit for teachers as opposed to a benefit for the kids.
Essentially, the Liberals came into this treating teachers like they were the enemy.
And teachers, it seems, have had quite enough of that.
So here we are. Brought to the brink of a teachers’ strike by a government that continues to insist they are listening to teachers, despite some pretty obvious evidence that suggests otherwise.
So now what.
Well, for starters, both Casey and McNeil need to extend some sort of olive branch. Teachers don’t have much cause to trust either of them at this point. Allowing the service award to remain intact would be a positive step for McNeil. As for Casey, giving up her almost obsessive focus on the “Action Plan” for a few months might be a good start.
Then, they need to come back to the table and get us a deal.
Because, if this goes the other way, we may very well be facing the first teachers strike in the province’s history.
And when it come to choosing sides, I would like to think that Nova Scotians have a great deal more faith in their teachers than they have in their politicians.
Originally published, (in a somewhat edited form), on localxpress.ca on October 10th, 2016.