Nova Scotia·Opinion

Nova Scotia teachers' contract details should be released, says Graham Steele

The latest tentative contract agreement between the provincial government and the Nova Scotia Teachers Union should be made public, says political commentator Graham Steele.

The teachers' agreement will set a pattern for public sector unions, says Graham Steele

The NSTU contract stands squarely in the way of implementing the biggest recommendations of the Freeman Report, says political analyst Graham Steele. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

If you're the government and you're going to announce a tentative deal with teachers, it may as well be during the first week of school.

Everybody's happy and excited, except maybe for parents of Grade Primary students, who will shed some tears — parents more than students.

Around the schoolyards of the province, there is no time more joyful and optimistic: new shoes, sharp pencils, a fresh start for everybody.

What better time to announce a new contract for teachers?

Last fall's deal

Rewind to last November, when the Nova Scotia Teachers Union and the government announced a tentative deal. I quickly and wrongly proclaimed a labour-relations victory for Premier Stephen McNeil.

That was a super deal for McNeil. He needed a major union to set the wage pattern for the rest of the public service.

The NSTU is a natural target for McNeil's ministrations. The union is not a member of the Nova Scotia Federation of Labour, and historically has had a rather fraught relationship with the other big unions.

But the deal was terrible for teachers — wage increases of three per cent over five years, plus the loss of longstanding service awards — and I wrote at the time that I could hardly believe the teachers had accepted it.

As it turned out, they didn't.

Crushing defeat

When put to a vote, the deal was decisively rejected by the Nova Scotia Teachers Union membership.

Voter turnout was 94 per cent. Teachers were mobilized.

The vote against was 61 per cent. Teachers were mad.

Nova Scotians won't be told anything about the teachers' union agreement until it's too late to do anything about it, says political analyst Graham Steele. (Getty Images)

Secret details

The vote was a crushing defeat for the union executive and a setback for government. I called the Dec. 1 teachers' vote the biggest political story of the year.

Now fast forward to Wednesday.

The new sheriff at the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, Liette Doucet, was elected president at least partly on the strength of her opposition to the 2015 deal. She promised to do better.

So, is the new deal better than the old deal?

We don't know. It's a secret.

Provincial executive to hear details soon

Neither Doucet nor Education Minister Karen Casey will say what's in the agreement.

That's just wrong.

To be fair, the tentative deal is between the union's bargaining committee and the provincial government. As of Thursday, teachers themselves don't know what's in the deal.

According to a release from the union, the provincial executive will hear details on Sept. 15 and the union will hold regional meetings with teachers around the province. A ratification vote will be held sometime after that.

The teachers deal will impact provincial finances, and if ratified, set a pattern to roll out through the whole public sector, says political analyst Graham Steele. (iStock)

Yes, let the teachers hear the details first. Then the rest of us will be told, right?

Not a chance.

3 reasons we should know

There are three big reasons why all of us need to know — before the ratification vote — what's in the deal.

First of all, the deal will impact provincial finances over the next five years. If it's ratified, it will set a pattern to roll out through the whole public sector. That's your money, folks.

Secondly, the 2016-17 budget adopted by the Nova Scotia Legislature assumes a certain wage cost. If this deal is outside the framework, then the budget may be blown. That could be an election issue.

Third — and perhaps most importantly of all — the NSTU contract plays a decisive role in how our public schools are governed.

Major goals set

The NSTU contract stands squarely in the way of implementing the biggest recommendations of the Freeman report, which was commissioned by the McNeil government.

The report was optimistically titled Disrupting the Status Quo.

The education minister likes to talk about how many of the Freeman recommendations are being implemented, but the truth is that the big, difficult ones require co-operation or negotiation with the NSTU.

But the NSTU is terribly afraid of losing the benefits and contract language accumulated over decades. Its leaders are not all that interested in disrupting the status quo.

Locking in the status quo

To put it simply, there is a tremendous public interest in knowing how the tentative agreement deals with the big Freeman recommendations.

But we don't know its contents. And we won't be told until it's too late to do anything about it.

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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