Union Concerns Are Community Concerns

portland-students
Led by the Portland Student Union, about 400 people rallied at a Portland Public School Board meeting in support of their teachers in January. (photo: oregonlive.com)

By Ben Sichel

The provincial budget was tabled in Nova Scotia earlier this month, with education funding being increased by $18.6 million.I don’t have time to crunch the numbers here to analyze what they really mean. (e.g. to what extent do they compensate for cuts to the P-12 education budget in recent years? And what year would we use as a benchmark, anyway? 2010? 2001?)

For the moment, teachers seem pleased by the budget announcement (despite the fact that Liberal government had promised $65 million in additional funding for education in the first year of its mandate, not over four years as the budget announcement now says).

In any case, though, it’s hard to be too happy about education funding right now: the day before the budget was announced, the government rammed through Bill 37, the law which effectively removed the right to strike from nearly 40,000 public-sector workers in Nova Scotia.

The government of course claims the legislation was necessary to protect patient safety. But of course, health-care professionals have succeeded in negotiating essential service agreements in the past when labour-management negotiations hit difficult spots. And, the nurses’ main demand in their contract negotiations, lower nurse-to-patient ratios, was precisely about keeping patients safe and well cared for in the long term.

At the law amendments committee hearings on the bill, and on the street outside the legislature at demonstrations, nurse after nurse came forward with personal stories about unsafe workloads.

But this issue has now essentially been ignored, and remains unresolved for both nurses and patients.

Strikes are by nature disruptive. They are also heart-wrenching for those involved. In the public sector, striking of course means withdrawing public, often free services from those who rely on them. Workers know this, and are most often deeply conflicted about not serving the public.

But removing the right to strike doesn’t mean ensuring good public services. On the contrary, it means that employers, who tend to have a good idea of when anti-strike legislation is coming, have no incentive to negotiate in good faith. Why bother, if they know government will step in and take away any power workers have?

(As well, research shows that banning strikes in health care doesn’t seem to make them less likely, as workers will strike illegally if the stakes are high enough.)

All this can be instructive to another highly unionized, predominantly female group of public-sector workers: teachers.

While there’s no reason to think teachers in Nova Scotia will face something like Bill 37 in the next year or two – Stephen McNeil’s government was elected partly by cozying up to parents and teachers – we would be wise to take note of some important happenings in other jurisdictions.

First, British Columbia. Back in January, the Supreme Court of that province ruled that two of the Liberal government’s laws pertaining to education were unconstitutional.

The first law, passed in 2002, took away the B.C. Teachers’ Federation’s (BCTF) right to negotiate class size and class composition (i.e. the number of students with special needs in one classroom) in its collective agreement.

The BCTF took the government to court, and following 10 years of legal battles the B.C. court ruled that this was a violation of the right to collective bargaining – negotiating is meaningless if you can’t talk about one of your most important working conditions.

The government was given one year to change the law. But instead, the Liberals in 2012 passed a law that was virtually identical to the first law. The BCTF sighed and challenged the law again, and the court predictably sided with the teachers again and ordered the government pay $2 million in damages to the union.

Significantly, though, Justice Susan Griffin also condemned the BC government’s strategy throughout the dispute. According to Griffin, the government had no intention of ever respecting the right to collective bargaining. Rather, it intended to “provoke a strike,” gambling that public opinion would turn against the teachers, which would then allow the government to legislate them back to work under the conditions it wanted in the first place. (You can read more about the case here.)

This is of course a blatant violation of the spirit of good-faith bargaining. To their credit, the teachers didn’t take the bait, opting for various tactics besides a strike in order to put pressure on the government. Only this week, 12 years after the original legislation passed, has the BCTF voted to begin moving toward strike action.

And depending on how the situation progresses, we might get an idea of how well the government’s strategy of provoking a strike would have worked. Will the general public support striking BC teachers?

In public-sector labour-management disputes, support from the general public is crucial both for unions and employers. And while most governments say they support collective bargaining and the right to strike in principle, they also pay close attention to popular opinion. Here in Nova Scotia the Liberals commissioned an opinion poll on banning health care strikes in 2013, and while the results were not made public it’s fair to assume they guided the government in its decision to pass the recent anti-strike bill.

What does it say about public opinion of unions in Canada today that the B.C. government could negotiate in such bad faith with 41,000 workers, and even defy the law, for so many years, and yet continue to hold a reasonable level of public support? In BC class sizes have skyrocketed, and the number of classes with four or more children with special needs has nearly doubled to more than 16,000 since 2012 – a precipitous decline in working conditions for teachers and learning conditions for students.

Yet the teachers’ federation, sensitive to public opinion, has still had to tread extremely carefully in its plans to withdraw its labour in order to improve the situation.

What are teachers to do when governments or school boards hold all the cards and refuse to negotiate, while our class sizes swell and student needs multiply?

Living in the Age of Austerity, when there’s never enough money for anything we value as a society (even though we live in the wealthiest time in the history of the world), some teachers are discovering that an active, engaged union is the key to saving public education.

In Portland, Oregon earlier this year, the 2,900-member Portland Association of Teachers narrowly averted a strike by negotiating a last-minute contract that was relatively popular with its members and the public. A few hours south in the smaller community of Medford, 600 teachers struck for 16 days and won concessions from the school district.

The secret of their success? Make demands about working conditions, which directly affect student learning, central to your negotiating strategy. Portland teachers notably won 150 new teacher hires in order to reduce class sizes, and Medford teachers won provisions which allow for adequate preparation time and attention to students with special needs.

In a similar case, in St. Paul, Minnesota, teachers won smaller classes in high-poverty schools, the expansion of the city’s pre-kindergarten program, and a 25 per cent reduction in time spent on standardized testing and test preparation, so more time could be put toward more authentic learning activities.

“It turns out making conditions in schools, not just wages and benefits, central to collective bargaining is popular with the public,”writes Sarah Jaffe in In These Times magazine. (Nova Scotia nurses took this lesson to heart, making patient safety the central issue of their recent dispute with the government.)

Other American cities have also seen rises in teacher union involvement and action among rank-and-file members as a response to the widespread corporate-driven “education reform” agenda. In Seattle, high school teacher Jesse Hagopian, one of the leaders of a boycott of standardized tests at Garfield High School, is running for president of the Seattle Education Association.  In Los Angeles, a slate of activist teachers called Union Power swept all 24 seats it ran for in that city’s teacher union elections in March.

And of course, the Chicago Teachers’ Union waged a historic strike in the summer of 2012 where teachers worked closely with parents and students and earned the support of a majority of those with an opinion, despite a well-funded media campaign against them.

Our union structures have always been democratic. Teachers elect the leaders they want to represent them, and they can participate in setting policies and priorities.

Like all democracies, though, they’re imperfect. In the same way that ever-greater numbers of Canadians feel detached and disillusioned from the general electoral process, as evidenced by a steady decline in voter turnout,  many teachers do not feel particularly connected to their unions. (There are many reasons for this, and I highly recommend Lois Weiner’s The Future of Our Schools if you want to dive into them.)

I’ve often heard teachers talk about “the union” as something external to themselves. In fact, teachers should realize that we are the union.  With no end to budget cuts and market-based “logic” in education in sight, it’ll be up to us to learn from the successful examples we see from our colleagues across the continent, and come up with a plan.

Ben Sichel is a teacher in high school teacher in Nova Scotia and a member of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union. This piece was originally posted on his blog, No need to raise your hand.

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