Why is the Nova Scotia Teachers Union Threatening an Illegal Job Action?

The governments we elect are accountable to voters for the quality and timeliness of services that are provided with their tax dollars. They must make choices about how to organize large complex operations, particularly in education and health care.

The Nova Scotia Teachers Union is, first and foremost, a union. Its role is to advocate for favourable pay, benefits, and working conditions for its members.

Teachers care about the learning experience of their students, and sometimes take money out of their own pockets to help with supplies.

Union leaders care, too. But it is not their role to make collective sacrifices on behalf of their members, say by offering to give up 1% of salaries so that schools can have more computers.

Nevertheless, the pronouncements we hear from union leaders during labour disputes are always posited as a fight for quality education. In the dispute a year ago, we were assured that the big issue was not money, but working conditions in the classroom.

There are genuine issues, but resolving them requires the kind of give and take, willingness to experiment, and cooperative exploration that is entirely incompatible with the rigid text of a collective bargaining agreement. A joint government-union process begun in 2016 recognized this, but the union withdrew when its job action began.

After teachers were legislated back to work, a Council to Improve Classroom Conditions was established. The union was invited to co-chair, but the other members were selected by government. About 800 teachers applied to participate and the nine who were chosen have been busy ever since, addressing ten priority areas.

Some student assessments have been eliminated and others rescheduled to more convenient times. A province-wide attendance policy has been established and pilot projects are underway.

Class caps are in place for all grade levels. Demands on teachers for data entry have been reduced. Student Success Planning has been simplified. Work processes around technology are being changed.

Some of these initiatives will work less well than hoped and will have to be redone. Other issues are not yet addressed. But this is a formula that can lead to continuous improvement.

On January 23rd, the Glaze report provided 22 recommendations about the organization of our schools. The next day, the Minister indicated his broad agreement with the report and intention to move promptly on half of the recommendations.

Most noteworthy were the proposals to dissolve the seven regional school boards, remove principals and vice-principals from the union, and establish an independent Provincial College of Educators to license, govern, discipline and regulate the teaching profession, somewhat diminishing the union’s role.

The union was understandably upset, especially at the latter two recommendations. They are bad for the union, but it is not obvious that either has much impact on what goes on in the classroom.

The union resigned the position as vice-chair of the Council to Improve Classroom Conditions. Its leaders and other teachers have sent a daily stream of letters to the Herald. On Tuesday, it will seek a mandate from the members to begin an illegal job action.

For public consumption, the dispute is not positioned as a fight to protect the union’s franchise. Rather we are told that “… NSTU members agree the situation is dire and that as teachers and administrators we need to stand up for public education… We need to be prepared to fight for what is right and just.”

Apparently, not all NSTU members feel that way. None of the teachers on the Council have resigned in support of the union. They met for three days this week to continue their efforts to improve what is happening in the classroom.

Perhaps the threat of illegal job action is intended to set the stage for a bargaining process with the government. It is unlikely to be effective. The government stood firm when the union was taking legal job action a year ago.

Most voters don’t care much about eliminating school boards; if they did, the turnout for school board elections would not be so abysmally low. Nor do they feel it is an issue of pressing importance whether principals and vice-principals are members of a union.

The government and the union share the blame for the increasingly acrimonious relations that have evolved. The consequence is that the union’s role is being increasingly confined to those matters covered in the collective bargaining agreement.

Meanwhile, the government must continue to find other ways for the voices of teachers to be heard as it reorganizes the schools system.


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