Nova Scotia·Opinion

Nova Scotia teachers need to mobilize for better contract, says Graham Steele

CBC political commentator Graham Steele says the vote by teachers to reject the tentative labour agreement was not only a blow to the McNeil government, it also showed union leadership is out of touch.

Steele says teachers need to pester their MLAs 'persistently and relentlessly' to get better deal

CBC political commentator Graham Steele says teachers are an important voting bloc because they are in every community and are sizeable in number. (iStock)

Teachers took Premier Stephen McNeil to school this week.

For the second time in 10 months, they overwhelmingly rejected a proposed contract with the provincial government.

And it's not only the Liberal government that got schooled.

The leadership of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union is out of touch with its membership.

Again, they recommended approval, and again, the membership said no. Having a new president made no difference.

I've never seen anything like it. We're in uncharted territory.

That's why nobody seems to know what happens next.

Legislated wage pattern

On the government side, Education Minister Karen Casey has ruled out a return to the bargaining table. She says she's waiting to hear from the NSTU.

She can afford to play wait-and-see because the government has Bill 148 in its back pocket.

The Public Services Sustainability Act, to use its proper name, was rushed through the legislature last December.

Bill 148 legislates the wage pattern the McNeil government needs to balance its budget. Arbitrators are forbidden to give an award outside the pattern.

Technically, Bill 148 is not yet law because it hasn't been proclaimed, but it could be in five minutes flat.

Strike mandate

On the teachers' side, there are a few options.

NSTU may call a strike vote, and if it does, it will almost certainly get a strike mandate. However, that's still a far step from actually calling a strike.

NSTU has never gone on strike. Nobody wants a strike and the government knows it.

A work-to-rule campaign could be effective. Work-to-rule means teachers would still be on the job, but they would obey only the letter of their contract.

Liette Doucet became the president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union in August. (CBC)

Quite frankly, teachers do so much above and beyond the contract that I think parents would be shocked at what our schools would look like if teachers did only what they're contracted to do.

There are other forms of job action too, but they're all risky. One wrong move could alienate the public. If that happens, the cause is lost.

Political action

Then there's political action. It's this political side that worries the McNeil government.

The big question now is whether teacher dissatisfaction with the contract will translate into votes against the McNeil government during the next provincial election.

Teachers are a voting bloc like no other.

That's partly because of their numbers — there are 9,000 active teachers and 13,000 retired teachers — and partly because of the nature of their work that distributes them across the province.

Education Minister Karen Casey said the government won't return to the bargaining table with teachers. (CBC)

On average, there are about 175 teachers and 250 retired teachers in every constituency. When you add their families, that's huge.

In short: Teachers are in every community, and there are lots of them.

That's the very definition of political power.

But do they know how to use that power?

Currency of votes

One-off protests at the legislature don't cut it. They're flashy, but ineffective.

The most effective political technique is one that teachers are almost uniquely positioned to pursue, but don't.

And that is for individual teachers to contact their MLAs at the constituency level persistently and relentlessly.

Politicians deal in the currency of votes. If you really want to influence them, you have to deal in that currency.

We're less than a year from a provincial election. Although the McNeil government as a whole is riding high in the polls, MLAs in marginal seats are skittish. Imagine what would happen if teachers acted as a voting bloc and told their MLA:

  • I won't vote for you, and neither will my family.
  • You can forget about putting up that lawn sign I took during the last election.
  • I won't be donating any money to your campaign.

Email. Telephone calls. Personal visits. On the street. If the message is concerted and (above all) sustained, teachers will have their MLAs' full attention.

Making things happen

The longer they're in politics, the more politicians understand that issues usually have a short lifespan. Something can be super-hot today, and by next week — or even tomorrow — the issue has cooled, even disappeared.

So, politicians learn patience. They say to themselves, "Don't sweat it, this too shall pass."

Then one day, they're faced with a campaign that they realize isn't going to go away. Their re-election is at risk. That's when they get down to work, and make things happen.


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.