Saturday, December 3, 2016

A War With Teachers - Why?

It’s hard to know exactly what the McNeil government is trying to accomplish with the legislation they will introduce Monday imposing a contract on teachers in Nova Scotia. Even with a legislated contract teachers can work to rule. Only a week or so ago Education Minister Karen Casey said the government was willing to live with work to rule indefinitely. Apparently her definition of indefinitely doesn’t even go beyond the start of work to rule. McNeil and Casey could be setting up a situation where Nova Scotia effectively has permanent work to rule in the province.

Imposing a contract on teachers is a high stakes gamble that may very well walk the Liberals out of power in the province for a long time to come. (The nature of high stakes gambles is you have to accept that it might pay off for them, but at this point it’s hard to see how.) The teachers’ work to rule plan meant students would have been in classrooms being educated. While there would be inconveniences of cancelled Christmas concerts and extra-curricular activities, that is part of a legitimate job action. Honestly it seemed pretty balanced. All indications are people who were going to be impacted by work to rule were largely supportive of the teachers. (This is not to say people necessarily supported every contract demand, but that they were supportive that the balance of fairness was on the side of teachers).

The government has said the work to rule situation creates unsafe schools. They haven’t explained how. In fact, if anything, all the government has done is basically say the teachers are right that there are issues in the schools regarding safety which must be addressed. The government’s safety argument is weak at best on this issue.

By forcing teachers to stay in school, the government is most likely  trying to limit the number of teachers who can show up at Law Amendments Committee as the legislation goes through. They avoid the optics of a lock out. The solution to this is relatively easy for the union. They can call a strike the day law amendments starts and the government may find that even more teachers, students, and parents showing up.

There is no limit to how long the Law Amendments Committee can sit (though it can sit 24 hours a day). So it wouldn’t take much for it to go for days. Predicting the future is difficult, but this seems like a strategic blunder by government.

The government’s action to close schools on Monday for students, but keep teachers in, also does something teachers weren’t doing – making parents angry. All of a sudden my phone and inbox are blowing up with parents and others I had not yet heard from in this dispute. Parents with personal stories about how classroom conditions are negatively impacting their child. Grandparents saying how they can’t recall such issues in classrooms when their children were in school. Students worried about their education.

Maybe the government is trying to turn parents against teachers by having parents blame teachers for not having somewhere to send their children. If that is the plan, they are saying teachers are just people who take children when parents’ go to work, not educators. This is a horribly offensive argument because both early childhood educators and public school teachers are highly trained to do their specific jobs, they are not interchangeable. Neither of them is a babysitter.

Here’s the thing. A couple years ago McNeil was over the moon excited that he had a contract with teachers which would then result in a standard by which all other labour contracts would be set. He had won and he wasn’t afraid to tell anyone. But it was premature.

Teachers voted down the contract and changed their union executive. It seemed to me teacher’s were as mad at their union as anyone else. They didn’t like the process. It certainly wasn’t about money. The promise from Minister Casey to take the Freeman report off the table (something many teachers expressed concern about) was the carrot for ratification. A second contract came and was also defeated. For most teachers it was little different than the first contract. Thing was, in the meantime McNeil passed a bill which in its language includes teachers in a wage pattern. The legislation inflamed tensions and added to the increased vote against that second contract. McNeil was losing the game he thought he had long ago won.

McNeil and Casey have tried to make the teacher’s dispute about money. About greedy teachers. They hope the public will turn against teachers. They have more difficulty making that argument now given the recent Auditor General’s report which questioned the spending decisions of these very people when it comes to education. They also have difficulty because teachers that have talked to me have barely mentioned the money issues. Classroom issues are top of the list. Money being the top issue is government spin.

There are very real issues in classrooms. I support the fact that teachers, and many students and parents, have finally said enough is enough. We need to fix the system. Emboldened by a Supreme Court ruling which seems to say working conditions can be in the contract, teachers want the structural issues fixed. We should all demand this. Education has hardly changed in fifty or more years and yet the world has changed. How people learn has changed. At the same time teachers have more time demanded of them to do non-teaching tasks to allow someone to make a check box in a bureaucratic office somewhere. It makes no sense.

The McNeil government has decided to declare war on teachers Nova Scotia instead of trying to fix what is actually wrong in the education system. We might be in for a long period of work to rule. It’s anyone’s guess where that ends. Maybe some parties stumbled into (and through) this negotiation, but there’s an opportunity to now take this time and agree as a province to fix things for teachers, parents, and most important of all, students. Let’s take it. Imposing a contract will prevent any hope of a collaborative effort to fix education in Nova Scotia.

A Post Script On What Will Happen With The Bill

On Monday, December 5th the bill will be introduced. While many are understandably under the impression that there is a vote Monday, there is not. The legislature has some rules which have to be followed. Here’s my guess. The bill will be introduced Monday and the session will likely be around an hour, maybe 90 minutes. Based on history of this government I expect Michel Samson to go right to 24 hour sessions. Which means Tuesday at 12:01am the legislature will resume, and after some required business and a 1:00am question period, debate will begin. Whether second reading clears Tuesday or not is iffy. If it does Law Amendments will go ahead on Wednesday, if it doesn’t at 12:01am on Wednesday you’ll see opposition business, followed by the completion of 2nd reading. Law Amendments will then fall on Thursday. After that it’s all about how many people sign up for Law Amendments Committee (which will also likely run 24 hours).

With 24 hour sessions (which seem all but certain but could change) opposition and government MLAs will take shifts going in and out of the debate. The chamber will rarely be full, even at procedural votes along the way. (All MLAs will almost certainly be there for the final vote.)

Depending on how long Law Amendments Committee runs and at what point the opposition decides they have made their point on legislation (which they know will inevitably pass) the bill will become law. If there are a lot of people for law amendments then it will pass sometime around Tuesday, December 13th (give or take a day). If not many people sign up for Law Amendments then it could be law by Friday of this week (December 9th).