It’s Not About Working Conditions Now

On November 28th, the government released its analysis of what the teachers’ union proposal would cost compared to its own. They are miles apart.

The average pay for a teacher is $76,133. The government proposal provides total pay increases of 3%, occurring in the last two years of a four-year contract, for a total cost of $41 million. The union wants 2% increases (more if inflation is higher) each year for a total of 8%. Unsurprisingly, this costs a lot more—at least $140 million.

The government argues that it has already spent close to $60 million on improvements to the education system, resulting in a slight decrease in the number of students per teacher. It proposes to spend $20 million ($2,200 per teacher) more on improvements to working conditions.

The union’s proposals for improving working conditions include reductions in maximum class sizes and requiring non-teaching staff to take over much of the administrative work. The resulting requirement for more staffing would cost $170 million per year, or $340 million ($38,000 per teacher) in the last two years of the contract.

The government wants to cease further accruals on the long service award, a benefit unknown in the private sector. The union wants it kept, costing $28 million. Combining these and other factors, the parties are $467 million apart.

The union is in a tough place. The government’s proposal represents a net reduction in pay and benefits for the first two years. The membership has twice rejected tentative contracts based on that proposal.

The government is in a tough place. Its principal claim to have been a success rests on its commitment to balancing the books. That tentative result collapses if it cannot hold the line on salary increases in currently negotiated contracts to mitigate the excessive increases given by the previous NDP government.

Applying the teachers’ compensation proposal to the rest of the public sector would cost $1.28 billion more than the government has budgeted, even more if the health care and civil service unions won further costly “working conditions” concessions.

With modest economic growth, taxation rates among the highest in Canada, and a working-age population projected to reduce by up to 100,000 over the next two decades, Nova Scotia simply cannot afford deficits like that.

British Columbia, following the oil price collapse, has had the best fiscal track record in Canada.

Since the beginning of 2014, its public sector contracts have provided increases of 5.5% over five years. Contrast that with the Nova Scotia’s NDP government, which gave 7.5% over three years.

A nice addition in BC has been further pay increases to public sector workers if economic growth is more than .5% better than anticipated in the budget. That produced results for workers in 2015, and may well do so again in 2016.

Nova Scotia appears to be learning from and emulating the BC experience.

This week, the Auditor General criticized the Education Department for its weak long-term planning for schools. There are real issues around working conditions. If the thinking around them has been equally weak, the frustration of teachers becomes more understandable.

The union’s website proclaims that this is a “fight for better education”. Perhaps it once was, but it is now a fight about money. The current dance seems to be mostly about the parties positioning themselves for a future court challenge.

In the meantime, the union is asking its members to work-to-rule, meaning that extracurricular activities will be cancelled and the teachers will not do any administrative work that is not required by contract.

This will be hard on students and their parents, but ultimately it will be very hard on teachers. Most teachers care deeply about the children they teach and understand that activities that take place outside the classroom are an essential part of childhood development. Facing the kids day after day as athletic events, holiday concerts, and class trips are being cancelled will be very difficult.

It will also be hard on their relationship with parents. At an average salary of $76,133, teachers are among the top 15% of earners in the province. They make far more than the average parent.

Parents can generally support that, knowing how hard teachers work when school is in. But, after a while, they will find it difficult to accept teachers taking all of the pay while doing part of the job, regardless of what the union contract says about extracurricular work.

Teachers will nevertheless be reluctant to go on strike, both for the lost pay if the government does not legislate them back to work, and for the pre-determined legislative outcome if and when they do.

It seems unlikely that this story will reach an ending that is happy, or soon.

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