A number of weeks ago, the CBC carried a story informing the public that the current McNeil regime has taken a step backwards in the eyes of a significant number of previously enamoured Nova Scotians. According to the story, the Liberals saw a 12% point drop, popularly speaking, over a three-month span.
Commenting on the results, pollster Don Mills opined that although a significant dip, the weak showing of the Provinces other two main political parties leaves the Liberals little to worry about. In the story, Mills commented “The numbers are still very strong relative to what they need to win a majority.” Even with McNeil’s own approval numbers falling to a low of 31%, he still remains out in front of both Jamie Baillie at 24%, and Gary Burrill at 17%.
As more of these numbers surface and as the hitherto “financially strapped” government continues to pile on spending announcements a spring election seems obviously imminent. With his popularity waning it would seem the time is right, or, at least, as right as it is going to get, for McNeil to drop the writ.
If the numbers are correct, and a vote or two is garnered via the current spending bonanza, McNeil could even win this one. Although his hold on the legislature will undoubtedly be less secure, it may very well be that Nova Scotia will continue to bleed Liberal red for the next four years.
The question, of course, is what are teachers going to do about it?
This may seem like an oddly political question to be buried amidst my educational rantings, but this election stands to be one of the most educationally significant in recent memory. For the first time in 122 years, a government has acted in such a way that teachers were moved to strike. This same government will soon be knocking on doors, undoubtedly trumpeting their success in settling “the teacher issue” in their quest for votes. The question that remains to be answered is how will average Nova Scotians respond.
That answer will be crucial for teachers. If this manifestation of the provincial Liberal party retains power, then teachers need not bury their picket signs too deeply in their garages. The teachers’ contract is up in two years time. If the McNeil Liberals retain their stranglehold, it is unlikely that their view of the collective bargaining process will change.
Therein lies the crux of the problem.
For Liberal supporters, and perhaps even a certain numbers of fence sitters, the decision to legislate an end to the recent teachers’ strike may appear to have been a necessary evil. The two sides seemed to be at an impasse, the province was being framed as financially struggling, and the whole affair was becoming rather inconvenient. Even as McNeil’s spending tops $65 million in the run up to the election, (an amount which, incidentally, exceeds total government spending over the previous 3 years) some people may want to make the argument that passing legislation to settle a labour dispute was sound fiscal policy.
However, it is not simply the enacting of the legislation that has me concerned. It is rather what the legislation says that leaves me troubled.
You see, tucked rather neatly within Bill 75, now called Teachers’ Professional Agreement and Classroom Improvements Act are two rather nasty articles that could have a tremendous impact on the ability of teachers to collectively bargain in the future.
The first item of particular concern is found in section 13 of the Bill. It reads:
Notwithstanding any right in the Teachers’ Collective Bargaining Act, Sections 26 and 31 of the Education Act apply when schools are in session while teachers are present.
This means, essentially, that any right of refusal for these sections of the Act teachers enjoyed in the past is now gone. Section 31 is all about the expectations around accepting student teachers. During the recent job action, that service was withdrawn, much to the chagrin of several local Universities. It is hard not to conclude that this particular section was targeted because of some political lobbying by those same institutions.
Section 26 is a bit more troubling in that it deals directly with the duties of the teacher. Included in that list are such things as teacher’s shall administer…assessment instruments as required …by the Minister; and assist in the development…of the school improvement plan; both of which were either completely or partially withdrawn under the Work-to-Rule campaign. However, the bigger issue lies with item (x) which says teacher shall perform such other duties as are prescribed by this Act or the regulations. By including Section 26, the legislation essentially says that regardless of any other right under collective bargaining, teachers must perform any and all “other such duties”.
This should be enough to have teachers, and, indeed, all unionized workers, pausing to ponder politically. However, it is in the final section of the Bill where the real issue lies for me. It is there where the powers of the Governor in Council are laid out. For those of you who may not know, the Governor in Council is, essentially, cabinet. Bill 75 states that the Governor in Council may make regulations in regards to, among other things:
“defining any word or expression used but not defined in this Act;”
“further defining any word or expression defined in this Act;”
“respecting any matter or thing the Governor in Council considers necessary or advisable to effectively carry out the intent and purpose of this Act.”
So, let’s review. Bill 75 has made it illegal during job action for teachers to do anything outside of section 26 of the Education Act, which includes language around “other such duties…” Cabinet now has the power to make regulations on “any matter or thing…” it considers “necessary or advisable…” and to create definitions around any word or expression within the Act.
In essence, it would seem that the government has given itself the power to define any and all “Other such duties…” and has made it illegal for teachers not to attend to them, even during job action.
Now, I am no labour lawyer. However, as I read it, the ability of teachers to collectively bargain has not only been damaged by this legislation, it may have been completely stripped away. If government gets to define “other such duties” which can not be withdrawn during a labour dispute, one wonders how any future job action can be effective.
So, I ask again, what are teachers going to do about it?
Supposedly the NSTU is exploring a legal challenge to Bill 75. However, it is unlikely the Bill will be struck down in its entirety. For those unwilling to leave such an important issue in the hands of the courts, more immediate action would be preferable.
For my money, teachers must ensure that once the writ is dropped, Bill 75 remains at the forefront. This is not specifically about the wage package, nor about the service award, nor about classroom climate. This is about a piece of legislation which, if it remains on the books, impacts their ability to fairly bargain improvements in any of those areas.
There are a number of movements already afoot. Certainly, BrokenGlassVoters established itself quickly as an “anything but Liberal” entity. Here in metro, a grassroots movement called #Tuesdaymourning is asking teachers to show up for school dressed in “culturally appropriate colours of mourning”. A similar campaign is underway in Cape Breton to draw attention to the “death of democracy”, and although these may seem a tad theatrical for some, the impact of this Bill can not, to my mind, be overstated.
For the teachers in this province, and for everyone who supports them, this election may very well become about which party will repeal Bill 75.
I, for one, have my list of questions already prepared, regardless of which candidate comes knocking on my door.