The Coast Halifax

A lesson for Stephen McNeil

Work-to-rule didn’t create a crisis in our public school system—it made visible the crisis that was already there.

Chris Parsons Feb 16, 2017 4:03 AM

If we’ve learned anything during the protracted negotiations between the province and the Nova Scotia Teachers Union it’s that there is a massive gulf between how teachers, students and parents understand the current state of public education, and how premier Stephen McNeil sees it. This gap was never clearer than when McNeil claimed he needed to steamroll over the democratic rights of teachers so the education system could go back to normal. The reason we’re in this mess is because McNeil still doesn’t understand that the system has not been working.
Chris Parsons (@cultureofdefeat) is a political organizer, health care activist and occasional writer from Halifax. His views veer hard to the left, and often stray into the territory of polemic.

The rank-and-file members of the NSTU have used their ability to collectively bargain to demand not just proper wages and benefits for themselves, but also improvements in their classrooms and better supports for their students. After seeing the hope they have placed in politicians go nowhere, teachers took it upon themselves to use the threat of job action to try to force the current government to make meaningful changes to education. For as long as I can remember, every party leader has promised to fix education, and none has delivered. Indeed, they’ve all made it worse. With no other means of forcing politicians to keep their word, teachers used the only real power that they have: the threat of withholding their labour. Work-to-rule didn’t create a crisis in our public school system—it simply made visible the crisis that was already there.

Unfortunately, Nova Scotia’s Liberal government appears to be so focused on using negotiations with teachers to set a wage pattern for the rest of the public sector that it’s developed tunnel vision. For McNeil and his cabinet this has never been about education, it’s been an obsession with bringing workers and their unions to heel. Because the province couldn’t negotiate successfully, almost the entire public service is in engaged in contract negotiations, in the same year the Liberals are anxious to call an election. No wonder teachers think they aren’t being listened to: They want to have a hard conversation about the state of education, while the premier is more worried about his next campaign and squeezing a few more concessions out of workers.

It seems likely that teachers will have a contract imposed upon them early next week. They won’t be allowed to vote on it. There won’t even be any neutral third-party arbitration, just the employer overriding the democratic rights of unionized workers. Sadly, the narrow focus of this government means that after years of negotiating, months of work-to-rule and a day-long lockout of students, the new contract will solve none of the underlying issues that plague public education. After this whole clusterfuck, Nova Scotians are being promised nothing but more of the same problems we had when this started.

For awhile things will indeed go back to normal, just like the premier wants, but if he had  been listening, he would have realized that a return to normal is not what people want. The cumulative damage of decades of neglect mean the normal situation in classrooms is simply unsustainable. Teachers rejected three contracts because a normal day is one in which a lack of resources and support means too many teachers struggle to teach and too many students struggle to learn.

Teachers wanted the premier to listen to them and try to improve a vital public service. In other words they wanted him to do something that is altogether abnormal for a politician in 2017. They wanted him to rise to the occasion and work with them to find real, long-term solutions to the problems in public education. Instead, McNeil is responding by unilaterally legislating a contract on them that leaves those problems untouched.


Opinionated is a rotating column by Halifax writers featured regularly in The Coast. The views published are those of the author.

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