There was been a whirlwind of activity surrounding contract negotiations between the Government of Nova Scotia and the province’s teachers.
On November 28, the Nova Scotia Teacher’s Union (NSTU) announced their intention to exercise their work-to-rule option, so that on December 5 teachers across Nova Scotia were supposed to arrive 20 minutes before the start of the school day and leave 20 minutes after the school day ends, suspending any extra-curricular activities outside the classroom.
Then on Saturday, Education Minister Karen Casey announced that all schools in the province would be closed on Monday, as a result of safety concerns expressed by school board superintendents. However, teachers were required to report to work.
Amid protests from teachers, questions from the opposition and criticism from parents and the general public, on Monday the province blinked and withdrew legislation that would have forced teachers under the last contract offer which was rejected by 96 per cent of the NSTU membership. Then the government completely folded by re-opening schools on Tuesday.
As if the past few days were not humiliating enough for Casey, the union confirmed they provided assurances of student safety on Friday, one day before schools were closed.
This came after months of fruitless negotiations between the provincial government and the NSTU over the new teacher’s contract, which deals with wage structures and pension indexing, among other issues, but the talks also dealt with classroom conditions, the situation in schools and professional issues.
At first, it appeared as though teachers were unanimous in their push for upgrades to their work environment, like the elimination of standardized tests and other unworkable programs and ill-advised policies mandated by successive governments.
After some cajoling, the province eventually agreed that more can be done to improve the working lives of teachers, to such an extent that it offered teachers an additional $10 million to address issues plaguing the profession, although it is debatable whether that amount is sufficient to address all needs.
It should be noted that the province did not arrive at that position willingly, but as a result of getting shellacked in the court of public opinion when Nova Scotians ran out of patience with the awkward public relations games the premier and education minister attempted to move the public mood in their direction.
Despite the province’s desperate need to compromise, the NSTU then bewilderingly demanded what the province calculated as an extra $500 million for teachers, including wage hikes.
This flew in the face of earlier claims from teachers that better working conditions were their priority and made it impossible to reach any deal without a clear understanding between the two parties.
After teachers twice rejected offers their union hammered out with the province and then recommended to members, this last minute change-of-heart further undermined confidence in the NSTU as a bargaining unit that speaks for teachers, and this reversal made it unclear as to what exactly teachers want.
Teachers made a grave mistake by shifting their emphasis from working conditions to salaries and pensions. While there is a clear consensus that teaching is a tough profession and definitive steps must be taken to improve working conditions, it is questionable whether the province can afford wage hikes and pension upgrades.
And, if the province caves in to teacher demands on salaries and pensions, they will put taxpayers in an untenable position in future talks with other public sector workers.
One would think this tactical error by the NSTU would have provided the government with an upper hand in negotiations, but after the fiasco of recent days that advantage has been squandered.
Instead, the province’s bargaining position has been significantly weakened, not because the teachers are right, but because of their own mismanagement.