Monday, January 9, 2017

A Return To The Bargaining Table - But What Now?

With the Christmas holidays past and students across the province back in class, the Nova Scotia government and teachers will go back to the bargaining table tomorrow. Will anything come of it? I, like so many others, want to be hopeful, but it’s hard to know.

It’s hard to see how the current round of bargaining can be considered either fair or balanced. It’s also not clear what the expectations of either party are going into them. Positions have hardened on both sides as best I can tell. Before Christmas the government released a list of the things NSTU entered discussions looking for. Everyone goes into discussions with a list. No one expects to get everything, so the release of the list was a bit deceiving. Moreover, the government only released the list of things they had come down to on their side, not everything they originally went in seeking (I don’t know what was on the government list, but by way of example, publicly over the past year we’ve heard things like removing principals from the union or moving some professional development to the summer as possible government requests, any of which may have been brought up in negotiations).

Keep in mind in the original agreement rejected by teachers, one of the government concessions was to not move forward with large parts of the Freeman report, so that appears to have been on their list of wants at some point. Point is releasing one side's list without the other is a bit underhanded.

It’s possible that what teachers may have been willing to accept a year or two ago has changed in response to how the government has handled labour negotiations (just look at the votes on the two versions of the contracts thus far to see support for compromise has declined). For their part, Liberals go into negotiations with the hammer of Bill 148 swinging overhead. They have little incentive to budge. They’ve said publicly that while some discussion of working conditions is a possibility, financial issues are off the table. How much money they would put into addressing working issues is questionable given their position on finances. Few of the working condition issues are likely to be cheap. But they are things which directly impact how much time teachers actually teach.

For those expressing concern about some of the things not being done during work to rule, increased non-teaching loads take time from classroom on a permanent basis. There is good reason to fix these. The basis of the government position is that there is no money. Money is not unlimited of course, but it’s not so much about there being no money as it being about choices.

Let me be clear. I do not agree with the argument put forth by some that the province is flush with cash and because the debt to GDP ratio is ok we can spend without concern. I think the province’s GDP is increasingly divorced from the revenue raised by the provincial government (at least in the medium term) and thus it’s ability to pay. 

However, I also believe it is difficult for the government to argue it is broke (or almost broke) when it has money to spend on other choices such as the Yarmouth Ferry,  image improvementsfor the Bluenose, non-priority schools, and similar projects. Now, I am not suggesting any one of these, or other examples I could list, are necessarily good or bad choices, only that they are choices the government has made to incur new costs. If their position is they are short money, then they seem to have incurred new costs at the expense of other issues such as the state of education. I have not heard the government say they think the issues in education don’t exist, only that they don’t have the money to address the issues raised.

So given all that what happens next? Negotiations are planned for three days. If the parties are truly getting nowhere they will end fairly quickly. Hope or even movement towards a deal will take it through the three days. The Liberals want NSTU to agree to the wage deal because it will set the standard for other labour groups. NSTU however is almost certainly not in a position to recommend the government’s current offer to their members. I believe at best we will see some movement on some classroom issues in the next three days but no deal.

This will trigger the rumours which circulated last week about a strike. It would make no sense for teacher’s to strike. While some stories about the impacts of work to rule on students have gone almost viral (some stories accurate, and some it turned out, to be over stated or not related to work to rule) a strike would result in a collapse of the public support that is there. It would also just result in the government bring back to work legislation within a few weeks (one Facebook poster suggested Health Minister Leo Glavine told her they would allow teachers to strike possibly for as long as 20 days). This could set up a situation with relations so bad you’d have an indefinite work to rule campaign (remember, teachers always have the option of some level of work to rule indefinitely).

It's important to remember that NSTU is not the only one in discussions with government. NSGEU, which represents many other government workers, has filed for conciliation in their talks with government following a vote against their contract offer and a short lived return to the bargaining table in December. They are one step closer to an arbitration call which the Premier has indicated will cause him to impose Bill 148. That would set the wage pattern and eliminate the long service award for all labour groups (and yes, the teacher’s agreement is covered in the bill). 

While Bill 148 will almost certainly be challenged in court, in the short term the labour costs delivered by the bill will help the Liberal government achieve their balanced budget and so a court challenge is a long term issue. NSGEU is highly unlikely to accept the current government wage offer because to do so would prevent the union from being able to meaningfully challenge Bill 148.*

The fact that teachers are returning to the bargaining table with government offers some hope. But that hope is tempered. There are real issues in education built up over many years and many governments, but fixing them has to start somewhere. Let's hope something positive happens Tuesday. 

Graham Steele recently penned his view that discussions are as much about public relations as anything else. My cynical side says it may also be about getting all labour discussions past mid-March to ensure a balanced budget is still reported for this year (if increases are agreed to after mid-March they may not impact this year’s numbers or the 2017-2018 budget when both are presented in spring because it would be past the cut off for changes). Whatever the case, the two sides are talking again and that is something.

*Regarding Bill 148, there is considerable debate about whether Bill 148 would stand a court test. While the government seems to be going to great lengths to show the appearance of bargaining (required by previous court decisions) some have suggested this legislation could face a different test because, while not proclaimed, it was passed while negotiations were ongoing and it might be argued that anything which comes after it doesn’t count as fair bargaining given the hammer hanging over discussions.