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OPINION: Breaking the impasse with teachers -- an outline of the way forward

How can things between the province's public school teachers and the government work out for the better while setting a template of reason and responsibility that others can capitalize on? Despite its challenges, this is not the proverbial untying of the Gordian knot that some commentators would have the public believe.
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The NSTU conflict is the first domino in a long line that must follow. If it cannot be resolved through meaningful collective bargaining, the lasting legacy of Stephen McNeil will be relationships with public-sector workers that may never be repaired, writes Paul Wozney. (WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

By PAUL WOZNEY

The news that the NSGEU requested conciliation last week after failing to make headway toward a new collective agreement in talks with the McNeil government underscores the importance of the three days of conciliation scheduled this week between the Nova Scotia Teachers Union and the Liberal government.

On that score, former NDP cabinet minister Graham Steele, in his recent CBC commentary, doesn’t find much reason to hope that a settlement is forthcoming, which is troubling to many stakeholders in public education.

Given how the McNeil regime has poisoned the bargaining well with the public sector during its mandate, there is tremendous potential for prolonged and acrimonious trouble on the labour front that affects 75,000 Nova Scotia workers. Some nurses remain without a collective agreement. The NSGEU and public school teachers are trying to work something out via conciliation while teachers are engaged in work-to-rule job action for the first time in Nova Scotia’s history. The faculty of the Nova Scotia Community College (also represented by the NSTU) appears to be headed for a similar experience, along with several other unions whose collective agreements are at or near the end.

It is this reality that makes the latest round of talks, beginning Tuesday, between the NSTU and the Liberal government so critical. This is the first domino in a long line that must follow. If this conflict cannot be resolved through meaningful collective bargaining, the lasting legacy of Stephen McNeil will be relationships with public-sector workers that may never be repaired.

By the end of this school year, teachers will have been without a collective agreement since July 2015. If the four-year term of the two rejected tentative agreements remains intact when things are settled, that means the NSTU and the government will be right back in the middle of this process again by January 2019, a little more than two years from now when that four-year agreement is set to expire in July 2019.

Make no mistake, this is a harbinger of a future Nova Scotia can ill afford: obscenely expensive Supreme Court challenges, permanently contentious negotiating relationships, unprecedented labour strife each time an agreement needs to be reached — these costs are not included in the government’s accounting, but they hold grave consequences for all Nova Scotians.

So, how can things between the province's public school specialists, principals and teachers and the government work out for the better while setting a template of reason and responsibility that others can capitalize on?

Despite the current challenges, this is not the proverbial untying of the Gordian knot that some commentators would have the public believe.

In terms of salary and remuneration, the space between the government’s position of three per cent over four years and the teachers’ initial ask of eight per cent over four years isn’t really that far apart. While government would clearly jump over the moon to pay no increase at all (based on its prolonged braying about the astronomical costs of three per cent over four years), tying an increase to the GDP per capita growth of the province means that as the province grows economically, teachers will keep up.

Given that economists consistently project this type of growth with accuracy and reliability, this would put salary terms somewhere squarely between the initial starting points of both sides, which defines the very notion of “resolution” to nearly every successful process of collective bargaining.

Given the modest position of the NSTU on this front, it bodes well that something in between can be sold to its membership, provided Mr. McNeil can actually lead rather than fall back on an imposed solution — the Bill 148-driven script that every news-consuming Nova Scotian can recite at this point.

Regarding the long-service awards: perhaps given the premier’s assertion that the people of Nova Scotia cannot afford to pay these out to civil servants, he will be swift to enact legislation that eliminates the lavish transition awards afforded to MLAs. This would be a symbolic — and also tangible — gesture that he and his government are willing to swallow the same medicine that they prescribe for others. Given that this is as likely to happen as Liberals are to forgo the colour red, then perhaps the premier will leave the long- service awards alone, given their modest fiscal impact on the province, while recognizing their huge benefit to teachers.

While many complain about bailing out teachers' pensions (despite a mountain of evidence that shows the teachers' pension fund served as a government slush fund to pave non-essential roads in key ridings and other frivolities throughout the 1980s and '90s after unethical withdrawals that were never repaid), teachers quietly pay more of their own income into their pensions than is legally allowable for any other pension plan. Despite this, their pensions have become a de facto fixed income since agreeing to modifications in 2007 that heavily favoured the government.

Losing the long-service awards would be a crippling blow to retiring teachers who have come to view them as a small cushion against inflationary creep, which their pensions are highly unlikely to compensate them for over their lifetimes.

While there is a cost here, consider the impact of a government “win” on this front in the long term. Hobbled by a one per cent per year wage cut for the rest of their teaching lives after losing the long-service award, does the public expect teachers to be reasonable or collaborative in two years when they return to the negotiating table, especially if the McNeil Liberals form the next government?

In terms of classroom conditions, there are low-cost/high-impact decisions the government could make today that would begin to address classroom issues for teachers. The government had previously offered to make the Partnership on Systemic Working Conditions — now the side table it has arbitrarily ruled to be the ideal place for all concerns to be dealt with outside the bounds of a collective agreement — an entrenched aspect of a collective agreement.

It could easily agree to do so again. With representation from the government, school boards and the NSTU, this body has potential to address real concerns if it is imbued with decision-making authority and equipped with some funding to address problems it recognizes and attempts to address.

This partnership could easily collaborate on and revise failed policies around student accountability (due dates/passing in grossly overdue work without consequence), addiction to grades and online marks and attendance that are the source of conflict provincewide, digital citizenship and cellphone issues. None of these would require much money, but would have tremendous impact on the realities of the classroom and empower teacher voices, which teachers have made it clear are missing from decisions and initiatives.

Additionally, winning back the confidence of teachers would seem to be a huge gain for the government after their universal condemnation of Education Minister Karen Casey’s reign of public-tickling reforms over the past three years. One could only imagine the cost/benefit figure for the NSTU as a valued partner in policy and at the polls for a Liberal government soon seeking re-election.

To offset the concerns teachers expressed in rejecting this measure in the second tentative agreement, why not give this partnership a defined budget to address systemic concerns? The $10 million publicly dangled by the government could be a small, trial pool of funds. If it proves to be a source of solution, innovation and progress for our students and schools, it could be something worthy of increased funding. It would also show that the government is willing to put its faith and its money where its mouth is when it comes to listening to and working with teachers as real partners.

Teachers know that the McNeil government is not the only one to neglect classrooms, and that it cannot resolve over 20 years of underfunding in one collective agreement. But that doesn’t mean more of the same can work.

Perhaps not all classes can be capped in this agreement, but maybe junior high classes can be next to build on the soft caps in place at elementary.

Perhaps the Partnership on Systemic Working Conditions can be empowered to draft a long-term plan to remedy class-size issues that implement measures on a fiscally sustainable timetable (10 years? 15 years?) so that subsequent governments don’t throw the proverbial baby of progress out with the bathwater, as we have seen in the wild swings of transition from premiers Rodney MacDonald to Darrell Dexter and Stephen McNeil.

There is no question that the problems of the classroom seem insurmountable: class sizes are huge, the range of student needs within each class is daunting, access to supports for vulnerable learners bottleneck with limited numbers of specialists to diagnose learning needs and to support severe learning problems. There is also no question that a $10-million commitment over four years cannot be construed as anything other than a massive commitment to continued neglect.

What if, as a first step, the McNeil government agreed to fund the training and hiring of specialists most needed to break the logjam of students waiting in queue to be tested, diagnosed and placed on existing supports? School psychologists, severe learning disability specialists, speech language pathologists, English as an additional language specialists — these would be highly paid jobs, but they wouldn’t require hundreds of new hires with a giant price tag (like the B.C. government’s  $50-million bill for 1,000 new teachers announced last week).

This would also mean that many of our most vulnerable learners — and teachers drowning with lack of supports for them — would get the help they need first. Universities could be directed to graduate more people with these qualifications on a short timetable, and this would be a golden opportunity to see presently unemployed or underemployed teachers with excellent experience retooled and put to optimal use to the benefit of students and teachers.

While neither of these measures would solve all problems, they would be meaningful first steps toward that end.

The province asked teachers what they wanted. Free of Bill 148’s shackles, teachers responded with 16 items that the government made public in an attempt to humiliate and embarrass them, by suggesting the entire package would cost over $500 million. Aside from the initial sticker-shock reaction desired, the government also inadvertently acknowledged that less than one-third of this cost addresses how much money teachers make, and over two-thirds of their asks sought to improve specific working and classroom conditions. For a government that claims to be committed to “investing in classrooms,” that is a difficult ratio to ridicule.

What teachers have asked for is for the government, via free and fair collective bargaining, to take the first steps toward helping schools become places students and teachers can thrive in again. They would finally see learning conditions entrenched in a collective agreement so that future governments cannot wave their policy wands and abort important initiatives for political gain, as the McNeil government did with several Dexter programs. This is a reasonable and sustainable way to proceed for all involved.

Despite handling things in a manner than can only be described as tone-deaf, it is not too late for Stephen McNeil (now that he has effectively sidelined Karen Casey by inserting himself directly in negotiations) to show leadership by ceasing the media-based negotiating and directing his team to reach an agreement at the table. It means being willing to take Bill 148 off the table and trusting that teachers can and will reach an agreement that is fiscally sound and meaningful in addressing the problems they have openly presented. Over 125 years of our own history shows that there have been several such instances that serve as precedent.

It’s a new year, and while we journey into those first few weeks where everything seems possible after the debacle that was 2016, I urge all Nova Scotians to contact their MLAs and press them to stop the madness and negotiate in good faith.

Despite the AIMS-led doomsayers who would have Nova Scotians believe that public-sector wages are killing our province, no collective agreement reached between teachers and the government has ever damned us all to bankruptcy. Neither would this one.

A fair deal that respects collective bargaining and makes responsible progress for both sides remains in reach — a key step toward a more prosperous Nova Scotia for us all. Let’s do our part as citizens to see that it comes to fruition in 2017.

Paul Wozney lives in Lower Sackville and teaches at Charles P. Allen High School in Bedford.



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