Nova Scotia·Opinion

Teachers wanted bread but got crumbs in new contract: Graham Steele

The reaction of teachers to a tentative agreement between their union and the provincial government suggests ratification is "a coin toss at best," says CBC political analyst Graham Steele.

Public education in Nova Scotia, Liberal government's future hinges on reaching a contract with teachers

Nova Scotia teachers, shown during a protest in November, are scheduled to vote on a tentative contract agreement Feb. 8. (Jean LaRoche/CBC)

The Nova Scotia Teachers Union website wasn't the only thing that crashed on Tuesday night, as scores of teachers tried simultaneously at 5:45 p.m. to learn the details of the tentative agreement announced last Friday.

Their hopes crashed too.

The reaction of teachers on social media and in the NSTU telephone town hall was almost uniformly negative.

They wanted bread and they got crumbs.

They wanted meat and they got soup.

Will teachers, when they vote on Feb. 8, reject a recommended contract for the third time?

Before last night, I believed ratification was likely. Now it's a coin toss, at best.

Rosy picture

As expected, the details of the deal leaked within minutes.

The documents, distributed by the NSTU and obtained by the CBC, try to paint a rosy picture of the deal, but teachers spotted immediately that the reality is more sombre.

On wages, the McNeil government stuck to its offer of three per cent over four years.

There was only a slight change to the schedule of increases. It's now a freeze in the first two years, two per cent in year three, and one per cent in year four, with the latter two increases beginning on April 1 rather than Aug.1. By any measure, it's a fractional adjustment.

More time off for teachers?

On the long-service award — a sticking point for many teachers — the McNeil government would not budge.

As in the two previous deals, the award will be frozen at current levels as of July 31, 2015. Any teacher hired from Aug. 1, 2015, will receive no awards at all.

Then things get weird. The NSTU says it has negotiated, as partial compensation for loss of the long-service awards, two new days per year of paid leave.

I fear this choice by the NSTU will attract public derision. These negotiations were about a lot of things, but they weren't supposed to be about more time off for teachers.

Working conditions

Teachers wanted cost-of-living wage increases and wanted to keep the long-service award. They don't need to apologize for that.

But there was so much more on the table. Above all, these negotiations were supposed to be about teachers' working conditions.

Education Minister Karen Casey would lose her cabinet position if Nova Scotia teachers reject the latest tentative contract agreement, says Graham Steele. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

"Working conditions" is a code-term for a long list of issues that beset the modern classroom. Its exact meaning varies from teacher to teacher.

Depending on to whom you're talking, it can cover work-life balance, violence, discipline, record-keeping, curriculum changes, class size, the inclusion policy and a long list of other issues.

The best thing to come out of this long-running dispute has been the way classroom teachers and support staff have found their public voices.

They're telling their stories. They're pleading to be heard.

Early reaction

Most of the working-condition issues are not new, but previous contract negotiations have tended to leave them unaddressed. Wage and benefit increases were a substitute.

Now we have a government that is going for the double: trying to squeeze wages and benefits, without making any costly concessions on working conditions. There are promises of investigations and studies, little more.

Maybe that's why it's this time that teachers are finally saying "Enough."

They've voted no twice already — no to proposed deals, no to their government, and no to their union.

Based on the early reaction, there's a real chance they'll vote no for a third time on Feb. 8.

What's at stake

What will happen if teachers reject the deal?

The NSTU president and the education minister would have to step aside or be shuffled aside. Neither could credibly lead the changes ahead.

The McNeil government would likely legislate a contract in the spring sitting of the legislature. The government may have done enough, through three rounds of bargaining, to withstand a constitutional challenge.

Like the aborted bill that was supposed to be introduced on Dec. 5, the legislation would likely impose the terms of the current tentative contract.

The government would have to re-think its plans to call an election in 2017. It simply cannot go to the polls with 9,300 teachers — plus their families, friends and supporters — looking to express their anger in the voting booth.

Is there a lot at stake in the ratification vote on Feb. 8?

Nothing less than everything to do with public education in Nova Scotia, and the future of the McNeil government.

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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