Well, folks, here we go again.
About a week or so ago, the details of the new tentative agreement between the bargaining team for the Nova Scotia Teacher’s Union and the Liberal government were revealed to an anxiously awaiting audience of teachers.
And let’s just say the reception was less than warm.
Now, to be completely fair, there are some minor improvements. On salary, McNeil (not surprisingly) has not moved a great deal. Essentially, it is the same list of numbers, with the largest raise, 2%, coming in year 3 instead of between year 4 and 5. McNeil did, however, address some of the concerns raised that the Partnership on Systemic Working Conditions would have “no teeth” by committing $10 million dollars a year to the endeavour, and allowing for an expedited arbitration process. There is the creation of another committee, operating at arm’s length of either the DoEECD or the NSTU to look at how inclusion is being handled in the province. Brand new in this deal, in exchange for the loss of the service award and rather out of left field, is the inclusion of two new “development days” that teachers can access over and above their sick time.
Now, from the outside looking in, it may seem that this deal is, indeed, something that teachers should be rather happy about. Few outside of the profession seem to feel that teachers are underpaid, and with a commitment to look at two key areas of concern, learning conditions and inclusion, the deal shows some promise. Finally, although there seems to be a difference of opinion on how those days are to be used, teachers have long asked for some discretionary time to be added to their contract.
Yet, somewhat tellingly, these two days have become one of the true bones of contention with this deal. In fairness to the bargaining team, teachers have, indeed, been asking to access some discretionary time for many years now, since our sick time is meant to be only used for illness. The flexibility to take a sick day to close a mortgage or to pick the grandparents up at the airport is long gone, and getting caught doing so is considered fraudulent use of sick time. At any other time in our history, these days would probably have been welcome.
This is, of course, not any other time in our history.
The teachers that I am hearing from (and boy howdy, am I hearing from them) are incensed that these days are even being considered. You see, they don’t want more time off. They want the system fixed.
And they have a rather healthy mistrust that any number of committees can do so in a timely fashion.
Teachers have not been marching in the streets, or writing letters to the editor, or taking daily pilgrimages to their local MLA’s office, or making a thousand heartbreaking decisions a day during work to rule to get discretionary time. They have been doing it for a fair deal, yes, but this grassroots movement, spearheaded by your child’s lovely and kind grade 3 teacher who has never carried a picket sign in her life, is, primarily, about the kids.
And in all seriousness, on February 9th, when teachers are asked by parents how all these efforts have improved the education system, no teacher wants to answer with the promise of a committee.
If early social media commentary is any indication, this deal may very well, again, be voted down. Then, any number of scenarios will play out, and, unfortunately, we will be no further ahead in addressing the systemic problems plaguing education in this province.
That consideration should not be lost in all of this. I have said it before and I will undoubtedly say it again: Something is obviously wrong in our classrooms, and teachers are desperately trying to get that something fixed. So desperately, in fact, that they willing to use their contract to get a commitment from the government to do so.
Now, I am obviously pro-teacher, but that reality should give even the staunchest of our critics some pause. Teachers are being asked to accept a salary roll back in exchange for a committee that will consider improving the system. A system, incidentally, which teachers themselves had no hand in mucking up. This seems to be rather analogous to firefighters agreeing to take a salary cut to pay for the firetrucks.
The fact that many teachers may be willing to face the legislated imposition of what will undoubtedly be a less beneficial contract than give up this fight for improved learning conditions for the kids speaks volumes. Yes, they feel they deserve a cost of living raise. And, yes, they are upset that this government has decided to attack a collectively bargained for benefit. And, finally, yes, they are upset that this same government has created legislation effectively tying the hands of NSTU bargaining team to do anything about either of these realities.
But what has teachers the most upset is that when this is all said and done, the classrooms they were willing to walk out of may very well look exactly like the classrooms they walk back into on the other side of this. When it comes to the learning conditions for the students, they fear nothing will have changed.
At the heart of this matter is that teachers simply do not trust the Liberal government. And, indeed, why would they? The Liberals have been in power for three years, and have had ample opportunity to “fix” the system. Instead, the minister decided to increase accountability measures for teachers and standardized testing for kids. She has also, not to put too fine a point on it, been less than friendly to the profession.
I also believe that the minister missed a golden opportunity to show that she is, as she has so often claimed, listening to teachers. It would have been a rather simple move for her to declare any number of department-mandated acronyms under suspension until the Partnership on Systemic Working Conditions had a chance to review them. Even a temporary suspension of these initiatives would have been welcome. Not only would they have relieved some of the strain teachers are under and shown that the partnership can be effective, they would have cost the government nothing.
At this point, I don’t know if any amount of olive branching will save this deal. Even if the Liberals do offer last-minute platitudes, it may be a matter of too little too late. After three re-writes, the Liberals seem completely unwilling to directly address the concerns of the classroom teachers. And, without some solid assurances from the government that they will be making the changes teachers want to see for their students, a “Yes” vote may simply not be in the cards.
Of course, I may be wrong. It could be that teachers can look beyond the government of the day and perhaps see a silver lining. Contract negotiations, after all, are about the long game. And even amidst the fiery rhetoric it must be recognized that having committees to look at the issues in education is certainly better than relying on government goodwill.
However, even if teachers do accept this deal, it should be noted that they will be back at the table again in two years time. Regardless of whether they are facing a new government or, more likely, a much weakened version of this one, they will need to have seen some pretty significant improvements in the interim .
Because whether the system is fixed immediately or over the next two years, the system still needs to be fixed.
Regardless of how the vote goes on February 8th, this fight, at least from the teachers’ perspective, is far, far from over.