Is It Working Conditions Or Is It Money?

Finance Minister Delorey’s budget update projects a tiny surplus for the year ending next March. This will only happen if the government holds the line on public sector pay.

The government’s position, as articulated in the Public Services Sustainability Act (2015), is to provide increases of 3% over four years, with the increases coming in the last two years. In addition, the government wants to cease further accruals of service awards payable at retirement, a benefit that does not exist for private sector employees. The bill has been passed but not yet proclaimed.

The affected unions include civil servants, health care workers, and teachers. That is more than 60,000 employees, so variation from the formula will eliminate any possibility of balancing the books.

Given the absence of raises during the first two years of the contracts, it is not surprising that the unions have not rushed to reach agreement. The first one to do so will set the tone for the others.

The civil servants do not have a right to strike, and the multiple unions representing health care workers might have difficulty achieving a common position.

So it seems likely that the teachers will be first to reach a conclusion. Their current collective bargaining agreement (CBA) expired 15 months ago. Teachers have twice voted down contracts that fit the government formula.

The current CBA provides permanent employees with starting salaries of $46,118, increasing rapidly to $56,970 in year 6 and $73,804 in year 11. Teachers can also earn increases by passing approved courses, whether or not they are using the skills acquired in their work. As a result, salaries can range as high as $92,286.

The teaching year occupies 195 days (39 weeks) between September 1st and June 30th, out of which provision is made for in-service education, organization, pupil evaluation, and classification.

That can be further reduced by paid time for pregnancy or parental leave, injury while on duty, sickness, professional development, certain union duties, or storm days.

Teachers have 100% employer funded plans for life, accidental death and dismemberment, medical and basic dental insurance. Long term disability coverage is 50% or more employer funded.

The service award provides up to 30% of final salary at retirement, more for some employees who were employed before 2002.

Teachers have a defined benefit pension plan to which they contribute a hefty 11.3%-12.9% of pay. The taxpayer share of payments into the plan is even greater.

Teachers contribute a lot of time in support of extra-curricular activities such as sports teams, drama productions, and various clubs, but none of these are required by the CBA.

Teaching is intense work when school is in. It often intrudes into evenings and weekends. Most parents are great to work with, but some can make emotionally draining demands.

The union’s story line has changed with the passage of time. Initially, the dispute was said to be about working conditions, not money. But as time has passed, it has become unclear whether a settlement can be reached within the province’s constraints.

Those constraints are not out of line with the times. To the disappointed surprise of their unions, the federal Liberals are sticking with the previous Conservative government’s position, which offers increases of 0.5% per year while eliminating sick leave banks and reducing future entitlements.

The NSTU has asked its membership for a mandate to call a strike. Awkwardly, it is not asking for a mandate to settle the strike. Any proposed settlement will require another vote which could add two more weeks to the time that schools are closed.

An alternative union tactic would be a work-to-rule campaign which would, among other things, eliminate all support for extra-curricular activities.

Either version would greatly strain the relationships of teachers with both parents and students. Nor will it make voters happy with the government.

The government identified several issues that would need to be negotiated in support of their Education Action Plan, including better-focused spending on professional development for teachers and a more robust process for addressing poor teacher performance.

All would be good for students but, regrettably, none of them made it into the tentative agreement that was in any event rejected.

A great deal of constructive negotiation was focused on improving working conditions. This is not something that can be resolved through collective bargaining, but a much more substantial process going forward was agreed.

Notwithstanding the negative vote on the collective agreement, Minister Casey wrote on Monday offering to put the new process in place immediately. NSTU President Doucet has responded positively. Let’s hope that teachers begin to notice a difference.

The McNeil government’s best choices have mostly involved things that they are doing differently than the NDP.
They have stopped making handouts to corporations (except for film makers and ferry operators). They have stopped meddling in the daily operations of the health system. They have stopped caving in to public sector union demands.

As a result, they are one of only three Canadian provinces with a credible prospect of balancing its books this year. Giving in on public sector pay will be fatal for that hope.

If working conditions really are the issue and teachers become persuaded that the new process can demonstrate progress, a settlement might be possible.

But if the teachers are unwilling to accept the province’s financial terms that have been twice recommended by their leadership, it will be a long, cold winter for everybody.

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