Opinion

Stephen McNeil's victory delayed by teacher deal rejection: Graham Steele

Last week's vote by teachers to reject the tentative agreement with the province was a small earthquake on the Nova Scotia political scene, says Graham Steele.

Steele admits to 'spectacular' error in declaring premier's labour negotiations a triumph

On the government side, the premier wants one thing: to freeze public-sector wages for at least two years, so he can balance his budget in 2016, and go into the 2017 election as the guy who tamed Nova Scotia's finances, says Graham Steele. (Mark Blinch/Canadian Press)

A funny thing happened on the way to Stephen McNeil's victory party.

Nova Scotia's teachers sent an RSVP, and said they couldn't make it.

Then, when the civil servants heard the teachers weren't going, they backed out too.

It's still early; the party might yet liven up. For now, the premier is standing by the punch bowl, swirling his drink, trying to pretend he's happy that only the medical residents are there.

Vote of non-confidence

Last week's Nova Scotia Teachers Union vote to reject the tentative agreement with the province was a small earthquake on the Nova Scotia political scene.

I think it's the biggest political story of the year, eclipsing the film tax credit fiasco and the Younger–McVicar imbroglio.

The numbers are stunning.

The 94 per cent who voted means teachers are mobilized.

The 61 per cent who voted "No" means they're mad.

And believe me: no government wants mobilized, mad teachers.

For the NSTU executive, this was a crushing vote of non-confidence.

The NSTU leadership first recommended a bad deal, and then failed to anticipate that it would be turned down so decisively. If they'd known it was coming, they'd have found a way to postpone the vote.

Spectacularly wrong

After the deal was announced back on Nov. 12, I wrote it was a triumph for Stephen McNeil

I think I got the politics of it right — the way that McNeil watched and learned when he was in opposition, and then executed a multi-step plan over two years that ended up painting the NSTU and NSGEU negotiators into a corner.

But when I wrote in my column that the unions were "cowed and powerless", I should have written that it was the union executives who were cowed and powerless.

What I got wrong, spectacularly, was that I took for granted that the NSTU membership would ratify the deal recommended to them by their executive.

On Dec. 1 I was forcefully reminded that the NSTU belongs to its members, not the executive. When I was in government, I used to complain when others failed to draw a distinction between the NSTU leadership and its membership. Then I went ahead and committed the same mistake myself.

Pension precedent

The last time the NSTU membership voted down an executive-endorsed proposal, it was 2005. The issue was pensions. The NSTU executive and the provincial government proposed reforms to the Teachers' Pension Plan. The membership narrowly rejected the proposal.

Instead of going back to revamp the deal, the NSTU executive merely re-packaged it and tried to re-sell it. They put the rejected proposal on the ballot, along with a worse alternative. Faced with only two options — bad and worse — the teachers approved the deal on the second vote.

So what happens now?

There will not be a strike. The two sides don't have a deal, but there are many, many steps to follow, and many months will have to pass, before anything like a strike could occur.

Besides, the simple truth is that rank-and-file teachers don't want a strike. They voted on Dec. 1 to say "Listen to us!", not to walk a picket line.

But will the NSTU executive respond as it did in 2005, and simply find a new way to package the rejected deal? Or will it insist on going back to the bargaining table, but this time with a fresh agenda, and fresh resolve?

On the government side, the premier wants one thing: to freeze public-sector wages for at least two years, so he can balance his budget in 2016, and go into the 2017 election as the guy who tamed Nova Scotia's finances. To get there, he needs one of the big unions to set the pattern.

The NSTU has said no, for now.

The medical residents have said yes, but they carry no weight with the other unions or with arbitrators. 

So McNeil is once again scanning the dance floor, standing under the mistletoe, looking for a partner. He may find one yet.

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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