By MIRA KATZ
As a result of the resistance of teachers and education workers in Nova Scotia, joined by other working people and students, the Liberal government of Stephen McNeil has backed down on its threats to pass legislation to impose contracts on teachers who are beginning a work-to-rule campaign by withdrawing voluntary extra-curricular activities. The government has also been forced to back down on its threat to lock students out of school while debating this legislation.
On December 5 when the government and school boards locked students out of school, parents and students rallied at the Legislature in Halifax. Even when the government backed down, large rallies of teachers joined by other working people were held in Halifax, Yarmouth and Antigonish the following day, reiterating the demand: Negotiate, Don’t Dictate!
The recent British Columbia Supreme Court ruling against the BC Liberals and similar ruling against the Ontario Liberals on their use of Bill 115 (the 2012 “Putting Students First Act”) reaffirmed that governments are operating outside the law in attacking the wages and working conditions of teachers and education workers. The resistance of the teachers and education workers to this dictate and their resulting victories in the courts means that the threats of the Nova Scotia Liberals are seen to be all the more illegitimate. Teachers and education workers are firm: Negotiate, Don’t Dictate!
The McNeil government’s threats have not achieved their aim of getting the teachers to capitulate, especially on how they will use their voluntary labour, and it must now resort to more desperate measures. It is the resistance of the teachers, education workers, students and parents that expose the real aims of the anti-social offensive to privatize education to benefit the rich. The experience across the country shows the necessity to step up the fight for the rights of all on this front of life as well.
Ontario and BC governments have been concocting schemes to achieve “legally” what they could not “illegally.” This takes the form of pushing teachers and education workers to give up their rights “voluntarily” through what is called negotiation. Following Liberal government defeats in major court cases, these governments are now taking negotiations over remedies to teachers as an opportunity to quell teachers and education workers’ resistance and eliminate their ability to say No!
In Ontario, the Wynne Liberal government wants elementary and secondary teachers and education workers’ unions to negotiate extensions to their province-wide collective agreements, rather than through standard collective bargaining. With these moves the government is seeking to forestall an open fight with teachers and education workers before the provincial election currently scheduled for October 2018. By extending contracts the government wants the provincial education unions to relinquish the right to local bargaining between school boards and local unions “voluntarily” with the promise of “gains.” Eliminating local bargaining and undermining locally-elected unions and school boards was one of the main aims of the McGuinty Liberal government’s Bill 115, which gave the Minister of Education broad arbitrary powers to interfere in or override local negotiations and collective agreements.
During the fight against Bill 115 in 2012, the Ontario Labour Relations Board was used to criminalize workers’ resistance by ruling that the coordinated withdrawal of extracurricular activities by teachers and education workers constituted an illegal strike. The Nova Scotia Liberals’ attempt to do the same through the legislature has been blocked, and they will now seek other avenues to attack teachers, education workers, students and parents.
Workers’ Forum expresses confidence that the determination of teachers and education workers to defend their own rights also defends the rights of Canadians to a system of public education worthy of a modern Canada. Teachers, education workers, parents and students in Nova Scotia make their province and all of Canada proud.
1. The Liberals have indicated intentions to reschedule the Ontario election to June 2018, which would put it close to the August 2017 expiry of province-wide contracts for teachers and education workers.
(Photos: Sarah Fiander, Nova Scotia NDP, ewok_baby, S.L. Morse)
Government forced to back down
Two days after the Nova Scotia Liberal government gave notice on Saturday, December 3 that it would recall the legislature to impose contracts on teachers, the resistance of teachers, education workers and students forced it to back down. The swiftness of the reversal, the unity of working people and the panic that broke out in the ranks of the Nova Scotia Liberals shows the acute legitimacy crisis in which the anti-social offensive and austerity agenda are mired.
Along with imposing contracts, the government threatened to lock students out of schools beginning Monday, December 5 under the pretext of “ensuring students’ safety.” On this it also had to back down, announcing that the schools would be open on Tuesday, December 6. Large numbers of students had showed up to schools on December 5, defying the order. Also instrumental in blocking the school closures were the many parents and students who protested alongside teachers at the Nova Scotia legislature. Parents laid the blame squarely on the government and refused to blame teachers, who they recognize are defending students’ learning conditions. For example, a Facebook group called Nova Scotia Parents for Teachers has more than 17,000 members and is actively discussing how to oppose the government’s schemes.
The government backing down also comes in the context of the decisions of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union (NSTU) to initiate a work-to-rule campaign on December 5 as part of negotiations for a new collective agreement. The work-to-rule action means that teachers are following the existing collective agreement and not taking on additional unpaid and extracurricular duties. The union had given the government one week’s notice, rather than the required 72 hours, for the work-to-rule action in order to ensure that the government, school boards and families could make adequate arrangements.
NTSU President Liette Doucet explained that the teachers have “determined that limiting our work will help to demonstrate the scope of activities that teachers do for students that go above and beyond, and those that prevent them from directly teaching students. Voluntary extra-curricular activities and scheduled field trips will not continue during this job action. …public school members will not arrive early or stay late after the instructional day; complete clerical duties; complete data collection and entry; or attend meetings non-essential to lesson planning and implementation.”
Public sector unions stand as one
The fight of Nova Scotia teachers was taken up by other public sector workers dealing with the same attacks from the government. The Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union President, Jason MacLean said, “First, the Premier of this province made a mess out of our health care system, and now, he’s moved on to meddle with our public education system and is locking kids out of their own schools. We will stand shoulder to shoulder with the Nova Scotia Teachers Union to oppose Stephen McNeil’s ongoing assault against public sector workers’ rights.” The news release added: “In coming days, we may be forced to ask our members to take unprecedented action against this government. We are asking all 31,000 of our members to be prepared to stand up when the time comes.”
Canadian Union of Public Employees (Nova Scotia) President Nan McFadgen issued a statement stating: “Imposing a collective agreement on our teachers is undemocratic. Bill 75 is thinly veiled union busting legislation that will not withstand legal scrutiny.” She pointed out that while Bill 75 may specifically target teachers, “it signals the end of fair collective bargaining in Nova Scotia.”
“Our members support the rights of teachers to bargain fairly and they are upset that children have been made pawns by a government that refuses to respect workers’ rights in this province. Never before has our provincial government attacked unions like this.
“CUPE Nova Scotia will fight to safeguard our right to collectively bargain and we call on CUPE members to do the same. We are asking our 19,000 members to be ready to participate as never before.
Nova Scotia Federation of Labour President Danny Cavanagh stated: “This Liberal government’s choices will see all taxpayers pay a hefty price for these bad decisions if it imposes a contract on the teachers. The recent BC Supreme Court decision was a clear victory for BC’s teachers, when it declared as unconstitutional and invalid the legislation that stripped teachers of collective bargaining rights in 2002.
“We have trusted our teachers for more then 100 years in this province when it comes to our kids, their education and safety and this government must start listening to teachers, parents and students — the only way to improve the conditions in classrooms and our education system is to return to the bargaining table and work out a solution.”
(Photos: NSTU Yarmouth Local, S.L. Morse)
In December 2015 the Nova Scotia Liberal government passed Bill 148, the Public Services Sustainability Act. Under the hoax of guaranteeing the sustainability of public services, Bill 148 attacks those who provide the services. It imposes a ceiling on wage increases for all provincial public sector workers of 0 per cent, 0 per cent, 1 per cent and 1.5 per cent per year over four years and 0.5 per cent on the last day of the contract. If negotiations end up in arbitration, the bill binds the arbitrator to these parameters in terms of wage increases. Despite the bill’s passage the government has yet to enact the legislation, preferring instead to use it as a threat hanging over public sector workers’ heads. However, the threat is not working.
Public school teachers have thus far rejected two tentative agreements negotiated between the government and the Nova Scotia Teachers Union (NSTU) since this round of negotiations opened on September 29, 2015. In the most recent vote, 70 per cent of NSTU members rejected the latest tentative agreement. The vote reflected teachers’ refusal to accept government dictate in negotiations. In spite of fears that the rejection might provoke the government to enact the anti-worker legislation, on October 25 the union reported that 96 per cent of the 9,300 public school members of the NTSU voted in favour of job action.
NSTU president Liette Doucet says that teachers are looking for more quality time with students. “Teachers haven’t been genuinely consulted in government decisions affecting classrooms and schools and as a result we are spending less time doing the things that matter most to students.” She also says free and fair collective bargaining and maintaining benefits are important. “With Bill 148, a negotiated benefit has been taken away, along with our ability to negotiate a fair and reasonable salary package. Teachers go above and beyond to ensure student needs are met, and we want to be valued and recognized by government for our contribution.”
On November 17, the union and the government entered conciliation, however the union indicated that it was not giving up its plans for job action. When talks broke down on November 25 it announced the job action would commence on Monday, December 5.
1. See Worker’s Forum October 13, 2016.
Source: Worker‘s Forum, December 8, 2016