Opinion

Nova Scotia education reform traded at bargaining table, Graham Steele says

The Nova Scotia Teachers Union is recommending its members accept a contract offer that provides paltry wage increases because it means the province won't implement reforms to overhaul the education system.

Province is willing to forego implementing reforms so it can balance its books in 2016, he says

Graham Steele says the most important priority for the government in the recent negotiations with the Nova Scotia Teachers Union was minimizing labour costs, while the union was focused on preventing the province from implementing reforms to the education system. (iStock)

Last week, the president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union told her members "the normal collective bargaining process was not followed for this tentative agreement."

No kidding.

Public sector collective bargaining is usually a highly-secretive process. Negotiators for the government and the unions go behind closed doors, and emerge only when the deal is done and it's too late to change.

Not this time.

Breaking from tradition

The government broke with tradition, first when it publicly announced its wage offer. The offer was slender indeed — three years of a wage freeze, followed by two years of one per cent increases.

Then, the cone of silence descended. The public stance of both sides was that there were no talks.

And then — surprise! — a tentative agreement was announced late on the afternoon of Nov. 12.

That happened to be the same day Andrew Younger released the first portion of his now-infamous conversation with the premier's chief of staff, Kirby McVicar.

The CBC's Jean Laroche has obtained and posted a two-page memo from Shelley Morse, the president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, to her membership. The memo is dated last Wednesday and gives us unprecedented insight into how the deal was reached and why the union executive is recommending acceptance of a deal that — on the surface — appears very bad for teachers.

Don't mess with teachers

The politics of union negotiations are pretty simple: don't mess with teachers.

There are close to 9,000 active teachers in Nova Scotia and many thousands more are retired. They're smart, they're articulate, they're respected and they live in every community across the province. When they're mad, they can hurt you.

To hurt you, they don't even need to go on strike.

A work-to-rule campaign is enough to bring the education system to its knees. Under a work-to-rule campaign, employees do no more than what is required by their contract. In the case of teachers, they do so much outside the classroom that is not formally recognized in the contract.

Work-to-rule isn't even necessary. If teachers in every corner of the province are complaining to their family, friends and neighbours, the government gets slowly boiled, like the proverbial frog in the cauldron.

Politicians, being the peace-loving creatures they are, have therefore tended toward appeasement.

The result, over many decades and many rounds of bargaining, is a contract that has encased the education system in concrete. Each individual item might have made sense on its own, but together they make education reform almost impossible.

Co-operation or negotiation

The McNeil government asked former lieutenant-governor Myra Freeman — a former teacher — to lead a panel on education reform.

The Freeman panel consulted widely and issued a report with many recommendations in October 2014. The report's title was hopeful: Disrupting the Status Quo.

The McNeil government's response was led by Education Minister Karen Casey. Coincidentally, Casey chairs the powerful Treasury Board, which directs the government's stance on collective bargaining. The minister's action plan, released in January, said the government was committed to the Freeman reforms.

However, the action plan did note a long list of Freeman recommendations that would require "co-operation or negotiation" with the union, such as changes to the school year, professional development, performance management, certification, assignment, and taking management out of the union.

Bargaining chip

Then came the negotiations.

The bargaining equation was very simple: the McNeil government put its highest priority on establishing a wage pattern that would let them deliver a balanced budget in 2016. In exchange, it was prepared to abandon any Freeman reform that required the agreement of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union.

Meanwhile, the union put its highest priority on stopping the "egregious" Freeman reforms. In exchange, it was prepared to accept a very low wage offer.

The key question for the union was whether the McNeil government's Plan B was to legislate. McNeil's great victory was that the union believed he would do it, even though it now appears the union never saw any draft law and McNeil now claims there wasn't one.

Iron grip of the status quo

In the end, once again, the status quo in education has prevailed. The title of the Freeman report, Disrupting the Status Quo, now sounds naive.

Education reform has been traded away, and — assuming as I do that the teachers ratify the agreement on Dec. 1 — is now off the table for at least another four years.

Never mind Ivany. Never mind Freeman. There is an election to be won in 2017, and Stephen McNeil believes that the map to another majority includes a balanced budget and peace with the teachers. Now he will have both.

About the Author

Graham Steele

Political analyst

Graham Steele is a former MLA who was elected four times as a New Democrat for the constituency of Halifax Fairview. He also served as finance minister. Steele is now a political analyst for CBC News.

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