What Were They Thinking?

The Liberals unwisely overreacted to the NSTU tactics last weekend. That does not change the fundamental issues at play in the dispute.

The first event was the union’s publication of a work-to-rule directive to its members, which constitutes a strike action. The directive was very restrictive.

For example, teachers were forbidden to: participate in any field trips or extracurricular activities, arrive more than 20 minutes before classes or stay more than 20 minutes after, supervise students during lunchtime, accept or supervise student teachers, attend meetings, enter electronic attendance records, and much more.

The principals who are, bizarrely, members of the same union, received similar directives, as well as being forbidden to plan or organize school events, attend Department or Board meetings, meet with Department or Board officials, and numerous other restrictions.

In short, the goal was to make the schools work as poorly as possible while still showing up for classes. On the sidelines, CUPE instructed its members to avoid being helpful on activities normally performed by teachers.

The teachers’ union directives went well beyond withdrawing from volunteer activities, although there is no indication that the union expected its members to receive less than full pay.

The government had a reasonable concern for student safety, reinforced by letters from the regional Schoolboard Superintendents. Its immediate response greatly exceeded what was necessary, and conveyed the impression that they were itching for an excuse to pull the trigger.

Rather than working with the union to resolve the student safety issues, it announced on December 3rd that schools would be closed until legislation could be passed to order teachers back to work, a process likely to last at least a week. The legislation would have mandated the government’s proposals for pay increases, which the union had recommended—but the teachers rejected—in September.

Students and parents were, not surprisingly, upset. They did not realize that “work-to-rule” meant working to the rules the union was dictating in its directives, which went well beyond the cancelling of holiday concerts and hockey games. Nor did they understand that the teachers’ actions constituted a strike action.

Demonstrations duly occurred, and government MLAs were bombarded with complaints. The union made the adjustments necessary for safety concerns to be addressed. On Monday, the government beat an ignominious retreat on the legislation. Schools reopened on Tuesday.

The government would have been wiser to publicly challenge the union to address the safety concerns and keep the legislation out of sight.

With the passage of time, the intentional harm done by the teacher actions, while receiving full pay, will become more and more apparent. But government will have a harder time earning public support.

One positive outcome of the earlier negotiations was the establishment of a Partnership on Systemic Working Conditions, which represented a sensible way of addressing working condition issues one at a time. The group met on November 10th, but the meeting scheduled for November 24th was cancelled.

It is noteworthy that the signs being carried by the teachers are about protecting quality of education, not getting higher raises. If working conditions are the issue, the union should want the committee to become much more active.

Sadly, the union will not participate in any ventures with the government—including that committee—while they are in a strike position. That does not fit with the narrative that this dispute is about improving working conditions.

Here is a suggestion for government. Find two or three areas where teachers have an obvious need, and provide some visible support. For example, commit to hiring 100 support staff to help teachers fulfill their data entry requirements. Whether or not that is enough, it is a tangible step in the right direction.

Establish a limit on the number of Individual Program Plans that any one teacher is expected to manage. That may mean some students do not get a program they need, but it may be a necessary step toward a more nuanced solution.

Make participation in professional learning communities (a chance for subject teachers to swap ideas) optional.

Don’t put any of these in the contract. Just do it. Earn some credit for taking teacher issues seriously. Then, insist on resumption of the Partnership meetings.

Secondly, although the government should not alter its 3% cap on raises over four years, it could alter the timing. For example, it could say that the first 2.5% of the increase it has offered would begin immediately upon settlement of a new contract, with the last .5% to occur at the beginning of the fourth year.

This has a bearable cost during this contract (about as much as the $21 million construction cost of the unnecessary high school in Eastern Passage), and will leave government in the same annual cost going forward.

It may be that the legislative solution will ultimately be required. But government must first make a more robust and visible effort to respond to legitimate teacher concerns about working conditions.

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