Back To Normal?

The teachers’ work-to-rule strike action, followed by a day or so of actual striking, is coming to an acrimonious conclusion. What has been achieved?

Working Conditions: This is not a topic that can be thoughtfully addressed as part of collective bargaining. That was acknowledged in the early rounds of discussion and a useful process put in place for ongoing work by the union and government.

The union stopped participating once it put work-to-rule in place, so no further progress was possible.

The government is now establishing a similar process, but with the union co-chair being the only union appointment out of 15 members. The nine participating teachers will be chosen by school board superintendents. The union can no longer subvert the process by boycotting it.

The union’s credibility as being the authentic voice of teachers, is in any event, called into question by the inability to get ratification of any of the three collective agreements it recommended.

A separate commission will review the Inclusive Education policy.

Work-To Rule: The union’s directives to teachers (and principals) went well beyond strictly voluntary activities such as coaching sports teams or organizing holiday concerts.

With the passage of time, some of the withdrawn activities became growing sources of distress—most notably for student teachers needing to fulfill their practicum requirements.

This is specifically required by clause 31 of the Education Act; likewise, clause 26 requires teachers to take attendance in the required manner, fulfill various administrative requirements, administer prescribed evaluation tests, and attend teaching-related meetings.

The back to work legislation includes this: “Notwithstanding any right in the Teachers’ Collective Bargaining Act, Sections 26 and 31 of the Education Act apply when schools are in session while teachers are present.” Whether or how the government might seek to enforce this remains to be seen.

The union has called for a strike on Friday, and possibly next week. Halifax-based teachers have been ordered to show up at the legislature if they want their $50 strike pay. No doubt many will, but it is unlikely to have much impact on the legislation. Combined with snow days and the new February holiday, it means that February 21st will, at best, be the second day of school since February 10th.

Salaries: The government is sticking to its plan. In the third tentative agreement, it offered to accelerate the pace of increases which would have put more money in teachers’ pockets this year.

It would have been of great value to the government if the teachers had accepted the offer, since it would have set the pattern for the other public sector unions. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that the accelerated raises do not appear in the legislation.

When the dust settles on the NSTU legislation, it will be time to deal with the next group. The most likely candidate is the NSGEU, representing provincial civil servants. They are looking at conciliation dates in March.

The government should offer the same acceleration opportunity to them. It will be clear, from the way the government dealt with the NSTU, that it will only be available if the NSGEU agrees to a contract.

The Future: The government worked hard to engage in substantive bargaining, at least in part, to reduce the risk of a constitutional challenge. As many have learned (most recently, Donald Trump) it is always hazardous to predict what courts will decide. Ron Pink, the union’s legal adviser, was quoted as saying during their town hall call that it would be “extremely difficult”.

In the absence of a successful challenge, the contract currently being legislated will expire in 29 months—not all that long from today. The best the government can hope for is that the dissatisfaction from teachers will reduce to a low simmer.

In the meantime, there are very real working conditions issues. The government has taken control of the processes to address them. Making visible progress will be extraordinarily important.

If not, the next round of collective bargaining will be much more bitter, even if the government is less constrained in the financial terms it can afford to offer.

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