Well, we didn’t have to wait long for the answer to that question, did we?
On Wednesday, January 30th, CBC reporter Jean Laroche spent some time ruminating about whether the Nova Scotia Teachers Union and the Provincial Liberal government were heading for “another showdown”, which has, arguably, been a rather constant state of affairs since this manifestation of Liberal Government took office. At issue this time was a recent report from Auditor General Michael Pickup about the state of the Teachers’ Pension Plan, which is reportedly currently underfunded to the tune of about $1.4 billion.
For the NSTU’s part, President Paul Wozney appeared at a legislative committee hearing on Wednesday to explain, quite articulately I thought, the union’s position on the issue. In essence, and in keeping with his constant message of a wish for improved union-government collaboration, Wozney explained that the NSTU would be happy to entertain the discussion, and find viable, long term solutions. Although somewhat conciliatory, Wozney was firm on his stance that these conversations, although welcome, should not happen within the context of collective bargaining.
For his part, Stephen McNeil responded by saying that, by now, the union should know who they are dealing with.
In short, here we go again.
Now, to be fair to both sides, the picture that has been painted by Michael Pickup is not a rosy one to be sure. $1.4 billion is a lot of money, and I certainly don’t have that kind of cash laying around under my mattress. Furthermore, that the number of retired teachers who are drawing down on the fund is reportedly greater than the number who are contributing is not particularly good news, at least as far as the fund is concerned. I am, on a very personal note, quite happy to hear that teachers are living long and healthy lives after hanging up their chalk brushes, but such longevity is the stuff of nightmares for actuaries. Finally, that the pension is currently funded at less than 80 percent also causes me a bit of trepidation, considering that it has been almost a decade since the big crash of 2008. I don’t know about you, but my personal portfolio, such as it is, has been a long time recovering from that little episode. The impact of a similar bump on an already underfunded plan would undoubtedly be fairly significant.
I think that we can all agree that the pension plan does require some maintenance. However, like any plan that is expected to last into perpetuity, I would say the amount of speed with which that needs to be done is a matter of some debate. Small, incremental changes in the short term could undoubtedly see long term benefits. However, I wouldn’t say that there is much evidence to indicate that the words “small” and “incremental” are part of our Premier’s lexicon. Neither, it would seem, are words like “collaboration”. This may play well with the small number of Nova Scotians who support him, but there has to be some consideration of the long term impacts of this approach.
There has been a great deal of talk lately about the global teacher shortage, and I certainly have not been shy about spreading that particular gospel myself. Ask any teacher you know about how many times in the past month they have had to “fill in” because a substitute teacher could not be found and you will get a sense of the pervasiveness of the problem. However, the more I read about world-wide trends in education, the more I realize that this summation may be inaccurate. It is not that we don’t have enough licensed teachers, but rather that we don’t have enough licensed teachers who are willing to do the job.
Maybe it is just a matter of perspective, but I can think of about a dozen people who I have met personally in the last five years who have walked away from teaching. Some of them were newly minted, but at least two were mid-career individuals who determined that the perks of the job were no longer worth the pain. Combine that with reports on teacher attrition rates, many of which indicate that half of all new teachers quit within the first five years, and Pickup’s pension picture seems somewhat less pressing in comparison.
Yes, the pension needs some attention. And yes, the situation is somewhat dire. However, the NSTU has shown a willingness to talk about the issue and come up with solutions, outside of the collective bargaining process. The only reason I can fathom that the current government is so set against this idea is that they either have a plan in mind for the pension that will, yet again, negatively impact teachers, or they are planning on leveraging the pension against some other, undoubtedly contentious, ask.
This government likes to frame itself as making “tough” decisions. Indeed, McNeil recently boasted to the press that he has never walked away from a problem, and he is not walking away from this one. However, he seems content to ignore the impact his decisions have had, and continue to have, on our ability to maintain a workforce. Making a move on the teachers pension without giving due consideration to the long term impacts that will have on our ability to recruit and more specifically, retain teachers is not being decisive, it is being reckless.
This entire conversation will require tact and compromise. I fear that McNeil’s bull-in-the-china-shop approach to our province’s teachers will leave the rest of us sweeping up broken glass long after this Premier has ridden off into his own, publicly funded, retirement sunset.