So. Here we are, smack in the middle of uncharted territory. Minutes after 70% of voting public school members rejected the latest tentative agreement, Minister Casey made it clear that the government has no interest whatsoever in collective bargaining that involves further negotiation. That, coupled with repeated statements from Premier McNeil in the days leading to the ratification vote that the government will not allow an arbitrator to settle any collective agreement with public sector unions, leaves us with a collective bargaining process with one final chapter: strike action or lockout.
Let’s step back for a moment to consider our lot.
Collective bargaining is traditionally a process that has a continuum of options and phases designed to provide both sides with flexibility and opportunity to find avenues to arrive at mutually agreeable terms. At times, that process is fairly straightforward. In others, these options provide complexity that empowers problem solving without locking workers out or strike actions.
Until now, that process has served Nova Scotia brilliantly. The NSTU has never once used province wide strike action of ANY kind, and has been a willing partner at the table. This is true in no small part due to the ability of both parties to leverage the full range of processes that make up collective bargaining (negotiation, conciliation, mediation, arbitration) that precede the doomsday final stage we find ourselves on the cusp of: strike action.
So how did we get here?
Karen Casey has gone into warp drive over the past two days to persuade the public (listen here and here) that Bill 148 (now the Public Services Sustainability Act- PSSA- kind of bears a sad resemblance to PSSHAW, doesn’t it?) is only about fiscal stewardship. Today (October 8), Premier McNeil took a few jaunty minutes to explain that Bill 148 suddenly has nothing at all to do with teachers. (As a fellow NSTU member awesomely pointed out today, this law actually names teachers in the legislation in eleven different places. Can a law name you eleven times but not apply to you? I teach English, but that doesn’t add up)
But teachers know this to be an unequivocal lie.
We did not goad the government to arrive at this place. We presented an asking package that was mild. Knowing the economic conditions of the province, our initial ask was extremely modest, so much so that it inflamed many NSTU members at its benign terms. Many felt that we’d essentially asked for next to nothing (I remember being furious!).
We know that the government stepped completely outside of normal bargaining practice and trumpeted its financial terms publicly at the same time it tabled them for our negotiating team at the outset of negotiations. Typically, financial items and items that have substantial funding attached to them are traditionally left until smaller matters are settled so if compromises need to be struck, there are tradeoffs that can be made at that late stage to promote progress when resources are under the greatest demand. This time, their terms were delivered first and in an earsplitting manner they can only have intended to send a message and set a tone.
We know that the government’s still unidentified agent met secretly with our co-lead counsel, Ron Pink (someone without any skin in the game), and delivered an ultimatum: take this deal, or we will legislate something even less palatable. Dire warnings of legislation that was ready to be tabled and passed by the majority Liberals were the major impetus that saw our provincial executive and former president (Shelley Morse) unanimously and immediately approve the agreement that was brokered under processes never before seen on this scale/scope.
We voted that deal down and told the premier to come back to the table and put away the threats and honour the process we have been willing partners in that has afforded stability and labour peace throughout our history.
We know now that the threatened hammer was Bill 148, and that it was rammed through Province House at breakneck speed that elicited a public outcry when the “consultation” phase where the public and opposition parties typically have ample opportunity to present food for thought was rushed, and civil rights were trampled.
We know that the second tentative agreement was negotiated with the clear understanding that the government was entirely unwilling to put any fiscal resources beyond those enforced by the unproclaimed PSSA, and that the McNeil regime continues to dictate what Collective Bargaining can and can’t be: it won’t include any more negotiating (although there is no reason why this option could not be turned to), and it won’t include an arbitrator at all (even though the PSSA permits this process, albeit in an emasculated form where no financial measures are within the power of the arbitrator to decide).
And now the Liberals have begun the spin cycle so as to cast this whole scenario as our choosing.
It. Is. Not.
We asked for real collective bargaining, free and clear of punitive and manipulative legislation that effectively truncates and limits collective bargaining in practice. Premier McNeil not only refused, but also followed through on the threat to pass legislation that allows the Liberals to impose the greater part of what would constitute a typical collective agreement.
We cannot ask for mediation, an option in the collective bargaining process that requires returning to the table, because the Liberals have said negotiating is all over. You can’t work out a deal with someone who won’t come to the table (just ask our comrades at the Horrid about that reality!).
We cannot ask for arbitration, also an option (and one that has helped avoid strike action in the past) because they have vowed to disallow it, and because the PSSA tampers with it so completely that it is essentially meaningless.
We did not ask for collective bargaining that has been rigged and dumbed down from the outset by a government intent on imposing its agenda on the province of Nova Scotia.
So where does that leave us?
Strangely enough, together. Make no mistake: the fight is ours alone. We are without political allies in the house that can do much on our behalf- there is no knight in shining armor or warrior queen to take up our cause.
The PC party under Jamie Baillie already has urged the government to consider employing any means necessary to prevent a work stoppage. Despite voting against Bill 148, Baillie and his baby blues have been deafeningly silent on subsequent developments while being startlingly vocal since our second no about further measures that impinge on charter rights. On the other hand, the NDP has no real clout in the legislature and even less moral authority to question the McNeil regime on educational policy after slashing millions during its first and only term as the government.
With that realization, it’s critical that we put marshal our energies and focus quickly to maximize our strength. It means recognizing that our enemy isn’t within. It sits at Province House, consumed with its own power and ability to impose its will, ready to stop at nothing to get what it wants, whether the enacted measures from its action plan make any difference at all or further cripple a system already teetering under decades of neglect.
Knowing this, we can either turn inward and allow frustration with our president and provincial executive to consume our focus and diminish our ability to mount a shared strategy and resistance, or decide that regardless of how we got here, our best chance for classrooms that don’t feel like losing battles and exercises in our best not being good enough is to lock arms, open our hearts and communicate with our provincial executive and president in the same, clear terms we have spoken to Premier McNeil and his regime of “thoughtfully listening, teacher-respecting partners in education” (paraphrase my own).
The question many are asking looks something like this: what tangible steps can each of us take, right now, that are most likely to lead to the best possible result in this circumstance?
I invite us all to think about starting with these:
- Contact your provincial executive member(s) and your president. Today. As often as you feel the need to share the things you feel are most vital and pressing. You might be shocked to learn how few of us have done this, and how little input has been shared with these people to inform very difficult choices.
- Demand that they find ways to reach out to members instead of waiting to be contacted. While it’s fair to expect each of us to own our responsibility to interact with our representatives, it’s also fair to expect provincial executive members to listen and serve and initiate meaningful communication at times other than their election campaigns. Let your expectation of dynamic, accountable and meaningful representation at the provincial executive table be a key ingredient in shaping a new normal so that disconnect between our highest representation and the rank and file simply isn’t possible.
- Talk to each other. Send an email to your staff, make a pot of coffee or tea, bring in some goodies and gather round. Make a Google doc everyone can jot and comment on as a collecting point. Find a way to connect with the people beside you that works. Commit time and energy to talking about what we value together. Have the courageous conversation about what we are or are not prepared to do when it comes to potential strike action. Outline, in specific terms, what superb leadership looks, sounds and feels like to you in this moment. Write all of this down. Sign your names, and pass it to your PE members and your president. Do it this week.
- Mobilize politically. Find your MLA’s phone number, email, social media and snail mail contact information. Get in their ear. Get in their head. Get in their voice mail, email and twitter/Facebook-o-sphere. Make sure they know how you view the government’s actions. Make sure they understand what it’s like to do our work with the resources and supports we all know aren’t close to enough what is needed to shine and thrive. Make sure you they know that you are, at this very moment, moving heaven and earth to persuade every single Nova Scotian voter within your sphere of influence to drop the Liberals like a diseased hot potato. (recommend you read this for a better developed list of what you can do in this regard!)
- Talk to your family and friends and neighbours about these same things. Heck, talk to strangers who can vote in this province too. About what? See all of the above. 😉
- Be willing to answer the phone and talk to the local reporter (except the scabs that work for the Horrid), radio talk show host or television journalist- off the record, but especially ON the record. Tell your story- it’s powerful, authentic and close to home. You don’t have to sound like you have rabies to have impact. Just tell the truth and be real- it’s enough. Your voice isn’t one distrusted or viewed with skepticism. It’s one people know and respect, because it’s you. YOU ARE THE NSTU.
There are 10,000 of us. There are another 13,000 teachers who have fought the good fight and have entered into the rest of retirement, but still know what it takes to do the work we so dearly love. There are thousands of other civil servants in the queue to deal with the McNeil regime after we’re done who are taking notes and standing behind us.
Lastly, I hope you will take some time to reflect on the power of the number one.
For some, one means solitude, smallness, isolation and vulnerability- separation from community, strength and sustenance. Think about how on many days this sense hovers around us in our work, when it feels like it’s entirely on our own shoulders to make it, to push through exhaustion and find a way when it feels dark, impossible or pointless.
Then, give yourself permission to think about one in a different light. Think about one as the joining together of many parts, parts that seem unrelated, odd companions and too diverse to mean anything to one another. Think about how each small piece fits perfectly into a place no other piece will suffice- the quiet introvert who doesn’t like to speak up or confrontation, but whose classroom is a haven for colleagues and students whose lives are throttled with noise and conflict. The jolly, belly laugher whose vocal disposition could smack as attention seeking to the uninitiated, yet serves as a magnetic force that draws people together and helps dismantle barriers and establish bonds. The worker bee that masterfully handles fine details that drives others to distraction, without whom school life would fall into disrepair and chaos. The big picture thinker able to remind us all of shared purpose and stoke the embers of our true passion that makes it worthwhile to stick with it in the toughest of times. Each of us is a strand, and when we work together, our efforts add up to far more than the total of our individual bests.
No one is asking you not to be angry, concerned, frustrated or whatever feeling you’re legitimately experiencing in this moment. But remember that there are plenty of times as a teacher where you have legitimate feelings in your classroom. As the professional in that space, you find the resolve to do what leads to the best end for that class even if it means moving in a direction that doesn’t put those feelings first. That power is in all of us, and we need to tap into it. Right now.
Do the things outlined here for yourself. You matter. Your thoughts matter. It’s your union, and your strike vote and your classroom at stake. Don’t let someone else speak your piece, because maybe it’s your piece as a new voice that captures the thought in a way that galvanizes thousands of others.
Do it for your best teaching pal next door, and for the teacher in a school way across the province you’ve never met yet shares your struggle. They’re worth it too.
Do it because no one else is coming to our rescue, but recognize that the splintered, ineffective NSTU so many have sighed about for so long no longer needs to exist if we don’t let it.
One cord? Easily broken. A rope of 10,000 cords? An entirely different matter.
Be the rope. I’m right beside you. #nstunited
Yours in solidarity,