For days and weeks the Nova Scotia Teachers Union dominated the headlines. But after the government imposed a new contract all that disappeared. What actually happened? Why did it matter? What’s next?
The Nova Scotia Advocate met with Larry Haiven to ponder these three simple questions. Haiven is a professor emeritus in the Department of Management at Saint Mary’s University, one of the founders of the Parents for Teachers Facebook group, and an expert in Nova Scotia labour relations.
Before we jump into lessons learned and what’s next, maybe we can talk about the larger context for the stand-off between the NSTU and the government over the last year or so. Why are we witnessing this attack on educators, at considerable risk to the government since the public clearly cares? What was this fight really about?
To set the stage, you need to know that In the past thirty years the province has become about 70% richer in real GDP per capita. In other words, corrected for inflation we are a richer province, we are wealthier. At the same time the median worker is taking home less in her pay cheque than she did thirty years ago and governments actually became smaller.
So the question is, where is that money going? The answer is that this wealth is going into the hands of the owners of capital. That may sound simplistic, but that is what’s happening. It is the rising inequality between the rich and the poor.
The only groups who have held their own so far are the professional workers who have skills and credentials that are difficult to replace, professions like teachers, technologists, doctors, university professors, and nurses. That’s who the government is going after, because these groups still have some bargaining power.
The second reason speaks to the government’s attempt to remove the teachers’ right to strike as a way to muzzle what transpires in the classroom. I like to draw an analogy with the Japanese lean production methodology that was introduced in North America in the fifties and sixties.
Companies like Toyota wanted front-line workers to determine the optimal speed of their production line. When workers felt they could no longer cope they could pull an amber cord and set a light to amber, indicating some problems, or a red cord, bringing the system to a halt so they could fix the problem.
In the public sector the red cord stands for the right to strike as the ultimate way to say this is too much, we can’t cope, the system is breaking down. Taking away the right to strike removes from the teachers the ability to indicate that the conditions under which they work over-stress them and that the quality of education is in jeopardy.
Thirdly, the Liberals want to take power away from the unions and the NSTU seemed a good place to start. The idea is to line up the public service unions, so that the government can knock off the easiest ones first, so that a pattern gets set. The government figures that the NSTU is going to be the easiest and weakest with its long history of non-militancy.
So the government goes after the teachers with the Freeman report in their back pocket. Its author Myra Freeman suggested big changes, and the government says we could implement this and make life rough for you, but we won’t if you accept our conditions.
Meanwhile there is no proper bargaining going on. The union is represented by a lawyer who has private meetings with a government representative and then reports back to the bargaining committee that this is the deal and you are lucky to get it.
The rest is history. To everybody’s surprise, including the union’s, the first proposal is rejected by 62%. A new executive is elected, the bargaining committee is changed, and a second agreement a year later is also rejected, only this time by 70%. The strike vote has 96% support. There is the work to rule,there is a one day strike, and a third offer which is rejected by 78%. So you have this revolt from below.
What stands out when you look back on the year-long labour struggle by the teachers?
The most remarkable phenomenon we witnessed is the militancy of the membership. The pressure was increased, the production line was running faster and faster so to speak, and finally teachers had enough,
Mind you, teachers should have started speaking up twenty years ago Thirty years ago nurses were very much like teachers up until very recently, quiescent, professional, responsible, with a sense of duty to their patients. For nurses that changed about twenty years ago. But the teachers have been quietly taking it, and because of that most of the public didn’t realize what their working conditions were like.
The situation now has become much more dynamic. Every action changes the status quo. It speaks to the power of social media. Union members are talking to each other in a way they were never able to before. All bets are off. This is not your grandfather’s labour movement anymore. Collective bargaining used to be very controlled and orderly and private, and that worked to the advantage of the employer.
One of the keys to implementing austerity is to lower expectations. The reasonable increases in the good old days were partly because of the self confidence of the working class. People were saying I am worth more, I want more, and I will make trouble if you don’t give it to me.
But these expectations have been lowered over the years. It became, well, as long as we don’t lose, as long as we get cost of living. And now we have concession bargaining and expectations have lowered even further.
The thing is, union militancy and raising expectations is a collective process. We surprise ourselves by voting down an agreement, we look around and there is a new normal. That’s why I am not surprised that the second rejection was by 70%, and the 3rd by 80%.
Has something now shifted within the NSTU, or will this become a forgotten episode? What are the signs to look for? What advice would you give them?
I’d say don’t let things slide back. Yes, you have been ordered back to work. I might have advised the union to break the law, or to do something else that is very drastic to defy bill 75. I know, easier said than done, I am not the one who will suffer the consequences, but it is the only way things have ever changed.
The teachers have got to get used to the idea that they are workers just like anybody else and they need to come into the house of labour. They should be working much more closely with the Nova Scotia Federation of Labour, and the district councils. University professors at St Mary’s, Cape Breton University, Acadia have been full members of the trade union movement, affiliated at all levels. If university profs can do it, then why cant’ public school teachers do it?
The more organized public support, the stronger the union. To build community alliances takes effort and strategy. The union could never figure out where the parents’ support came from. They realized how helpful it was to have parents on their side, not just to send a message to the government, but also to the teachers. To see that there are 20,000 parents that support you boosts your radical imagination, to borrow a phrase. The NSTU has to do more of that, they need to work much more with parents, progressive organizations and unions.
Do you believe it was always sufficiently clear what NSTU wanted in their fight for better education?
Teaching is becoming harder and harder, meanwhile the government wants to lower their pay. By the way, it is not a 3% raise that the government has offered. With inflation running between 1.5% and 2% per year, what is touted as a 3% raise amounts to a 4.5% to 7% wage cut. And this applies not only on the teachers, but to all the public sector unions.
Teachers want to do their job and get the resources to do it, and they don’t want to get their pay cut. What is so hard to understand about that?
That said, the NSTU has not really defined what a good education system entails. For this they cannot be faulted any more than any other union, But one of the things on the NSTU agenda should be what is their vision in terms of the education system.
Has something shifted within government as a result of all this?
In a way everything has changed. The government has the power and the seats to do what it wants, constrained only by the law, which has become more difficult with the charter protection of the right to strike, and by public opinion. But no government wants to do something that gets it unelected.
Politics is a funny business. you never can tell. Now we have the broken glass voters, people who will crawl over broken glass to vote against the government. The more of such groups pop up, the less likely it becomes that you will form the next government.
This piece was first published on The Nova Scotia Advocate.