Thursday, February 9, 2017

Three Strikes - But For Government or Teachers?



To no one’s real surprise teachers voted overwhelmingly against a proposed contract offer from the provincial government. With 78.5% of teachers voting against, it’s a clear indictment of the offer. It also suggests that chatter on social media from day one by teachers that the deal was not acceptable was accurate. This also puts credence to the notion that the priority for teachers in this dispute is addressing classroom issues. You might say it's three strikes and you're out. But who's out? Government supporters would position the union as the batter and say they should have a contract forced upon them. Others would say teachers are the pitchers in this game and have pitched three clear strikes leaving the government out.

This contract offer was not particularly different from the last two in terms of classroom issues. It offered one committee to look at some of the classroom issues (with no guarantees of implementation) and another more controversial one set up to look at inclusion that appeared to exclude the very people it needed to include. No doubt much of the commentary in the next few days will be about why the executive of the NSTU recommended the deal, and whether that executive or Minister Casey should resign. I will leave that to others. I want to consider what comes next.

Shockingly (or perhaps not shockingly since the Premier spoke out earlier) Education Minister Karen Casey spoke out after Thursday’s cabinet and during NSTU voting saying 
"I know that regardless of the vote there will be a period of transition when the work-to-rule no longer exists. And teachers, many of them want to get back to the classroom. I believe that transition period will begin immediately.”
Talk about inflaming an already tense situation in the middle of a vote. Teacher’s never left the classroom. Moreover, work to rule would not wind down regardless of the vote, it would only have wound down in the event of a vote favouring the contract. I thought government learned when the Premier spoke, that the only answer for government until after the vote to any question should have been “we await the results of the vote and will respond following and not before”. 
 
Casey went on to say that she expected things to return back to the way things were before work to rule. The union and many teachers have made it quite clear that there is now a new normal. Sure, some things are likely to return. Teachers want to be there for their students after all. But work life balance was taking on new importance to many. That shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone.

So what happens now? The only guarantee is that there isn't one. Some have speculated the union will take strike action. This seems implausible given it would give them far less leverage than the current work to rule. The union has stated they will ask the government to return to the bargaining table.

The government may introduce legislation to impose a contract. That seems widely believed, and it may happen. But it’s hard to see how the government gets any kind of win with that. If there’s no win or benefit to government, why would they bother? They can more easily impose the wage pattern on NSGEU using a combination of that union’s automatic right of arbitration combined with the imposition of Bill 148. That would not require a drawn out fight in the legislature and so has significant political benefits. Once the wage pattern is in place (which includes cancellation of the service award), the teacher’s contract, placed until then on the back burner, can be sorted out over summer when classes are not being impacted and the public is not paying attention.

Despite all that, government may still impose legislation seeking to end work to rule. It’s high risk with limited benefit. The government will surely point to an affidavit filed by the NSTU opposing action by universities. In it, the union acknowledged that work to rule is strike action and conceded that there are contractual and Education Act requirements that teachers are not doing as a result. This being the case, government could force an end to the strike portion of work to rule. But only the strike portion. 

That's where it gets rough for government. The things some people are complaining about not happening in the school system are, for the most part, not required in either the Education Act or the contract, so government legislation would likely disappoint those seeking government action. That makes it a political risk. (As an aside, given the NSTU has stated that work to rule is strike action, those who were concerned about refunds for trips where refunds required strike action should now be able to get them)

There is another option, though I think really is a long shot. Government could call an election on the teachers issue. They seem to want an election. The Liberals seem to be trying to skate around a recent court ruling which ruled the current riding boundaries unconstitutional (more on that and why it should matter to all Nova Scotians in a coming blog). You would think a responsible government, given an election is not required until fall 2018, would move to fix those boundaries before an election to avoid the risk of injunctions and court action. But who knows, maybe they will use the teachers impasse as an excuse to call, what would still be, an early election. 

I’ve held the belief all along that unless this dispute is resolve amicably – something which seems increasingly unlikely – some kind of long term work to rule is inevitable. I'm of the view that both legislation and strike action would result in making a bad situation worse, without solving anything, or moving the resolution of classroom issues forward. 

At this point the best thing both sides could do is take a step back, regroup, and figure out a way forward. That, I fear, is probably overly optimistic.