Friday, January 27, 2017

Work To Rule Returns - Are We Surprised?

It’s enough to make your head spin. Back to work to rule for teacher’s in Nova Scotia.

A lot has happened in a few days.  The Nova Scotia Teacher’s Union (NSTU) executive recommended a contract offer to its membership (some reports suggest this was a split and divisive decision by the executive) which it said was the best it felt it would get. The executive said it included two new days off (there is considerable debate about what exactly teachers could do on those days, but they wouldn’t be in class, the wording does seem to allow very broad discretion as to their use). These were sold as a trade off for the loss of the service award.

Teachers almost immediately started posting in social media that their priority was classroom conditions and that they did not want two days off. They wanted help with the workload and changing classroom environment. In fact, many were upset that the contract agreement made it seem to the public that their fight was about money and yet for those speaking out publicly, the priority was the classroom.

Then on Friday reported that the Premier said  the union had it wrong and teachers were getting marking days and expected to be at school (there are a few versions of exactly what was said but that seems to be the gist). The union executive, already under fire from members, students, and parents who didn’t like the proposed contract, had enough and re-implemented work to rule saying they could no longer trust the Premier.

Neither the return to work to rule, or the contract dispute, is about whether there are two days off for teachers or not. Every single teacher I have spoken to has told me they did not ask for two days off, don’t really want them, and would like to have seen the value of that used to hire more EPAs for the classroom, or some other supports. (One suggested the government's value of the two days equates to hiring of 277 EPAs. I do not know if this is accurate) Teachers I have spoken to can’t even figure out where this idea originated.

This is about the fact neither side in this dispute trusts the other side. Not one bit. That leaves the chance of a resolution very low. Less than low really.

It’s obvious there is a massive communications problem between the union and government. (As well as a communications issue between at least some of the NSTU executive and their membership) The $60 million value of the contract improvements earlier reported seemed dubious as that was based on government’s largely debunked December estimates of NSTU contract asks. The fact the Premier criticized the union before a contract vote probably put the final nail in the coffin of the tentative contract, though its very likely the contract was going to be voted down anyhow.

Graham Steele called the return to work to rule an over reaction. I take his point, but it’s likely the NSTU executive saw they did not have the support of the teachers and needed to get back in line with the membership. They also knew from social media that many teachers were going to continue to work to rule (at some level) because they did not support the contract offer. Continuing to phase out of work to rule made little sense with a no vote coming.

Some pundits said earlier today that teachers will lose support and the government will win the PR battle if the current contract is refused. I’m not so sure. Even if teacher’s lose some support because their union has not mounted a credible and relatable  public relations response to the government’s campaign, many parents, students, grandparents, and others I speak to recognize the education system is broken and needs to be fixed.

It's a "pox on all their houses". Many don’t seem to accept that the promise of some committee to look at the issues is a solution. A wide swath of Nova Scotians seem to rightly recognize time is long past for committees and commissions which delay things to some future point or never. Changes and fixes need to be implemented now. So while work to rule may very well result in some drift of support from teachers, it doesn’t seem obvious that this will go to support of the government. Many of the same people who criticize their perception of the teachers’ stance to me, are equally (or more) critical of the government failure to have made substantial classroom improvements in the contract and over the past three years.

So what happens now? Some have suggested teachers should go on strike. I don’t see any value for teachers, either to win their war, or in increase public support, by doing that. If they do, government will legislate them back after some period of time (for some unknown reason 20 working days keeps getting floated) and impose a contract.

While there are some who complain teachers are well paid and that this is about wages, I believe the sincerity of the many, many teachers across the province who have spoken to me personally and told me stories of their experiences, that their priority – like those of parents and students who are supporting them – is the classroom.

Some people are also demanding the government end work to rule. No government can end work to rule. Demanding that teachers do more than their contracts require isn’t going to work. It takes a cooperative relationship with government and Nova Scotians. That is the biggest risk now. The relationship between teachers and government is all but nonexistent. 

Some of the issues seem to be around not being able to access marks on demand, online (rather than through the teacher as it was before PowerSchool), chaperoning trips during school holidays, or not being able to reach teachers after hours. These are things teachers haven’t always done. Frankly, the government doesn’t seem to think those things should be added to the list of teacher duties, so it’s another situation where some may not support teachers, but the government stance isn’t supporting that position either. If December is any guide, any imposed contract will not change the duties of teachers, so teachers will return to class, and likely work to rule or some version of it will become the norm in Nova Scotia. Government won’t want that. Parents won't want that. Students won't want that.

Teachers might take some blame for continued work to rule, but it won’t matter because they aren’t on the ballot. Government MLAs will take the blame at the ballot box if an election comes and strikes, contracts, and work to rule are not a distant, almost forgotten, memory.