The Nova Scotia Teachers Union will elect a new president later this spring. Six candidates are attempting to replace Shelley Morse, who is completing her second two-year term in office. (NSTU rules state that no president can serve for more than four years.)
What should members be looking for in a leader?
In no particular order, here are my thoughts on what I think is important for members to consider when making their ballot choice on May 25th.
1. The new NSTU president should make clear the connection between good working conditions for teachers and quality education for kids. Teacher union issues are often framed in the media as teachers vs. students or teachers vs. parents. The reality is that fair workloads for teachers, well-resourced classrooms and respect in the workplace are good for everybody. As teachers we know this intuitively, but sometimes the message gets lost in the details of contracts and labour disputes.
After teachers voted “no” to the tentative agreement in November, many said publicly that they did so because the proposed contract did nothing to address their working conditions. Class sizes are swelling above 35, more and more special needs are identified in the classroom with inconsistent support, and teachers are spending too much time on unnecessary paperwork instead of teaching. The new NSTU president should keep these messages front and centre in dealings with government and the public.
On a related note…
2. The new NSTU president needs to have a powerful public voice. Many members hear their president speak through the media more than they do through internal union communications. The president is the face of the union, in charge of representing teachers for the general public. They need to be able to speak articulately and powerfully, to think on their feet and to stick to the point. Teachers need to feel confident that their interests are being defended and their views represented when they hear the news.
3. The new NSTU president should make social justice an important pillar of the union’s work. Many teachers I know are broadly supportive of ideas of social justice and equality, yet are unsure about how they fit into the work of their union. Shouldn’t unions just concern themselves with bread-and-butter issues like contracts and grievances?
Unions are at their best, though, when they recognize that working toward a more just and equal society ultimately benefits everyone. As the saying goes, an injury to one is an injury to all. That doesn’t just mean “all members of the bargaining unit.” Unions need to be out front providing resources and organizational support in the fight against poverty and inequality, racism, sexism and all forms of oppression.
As teachers we see direct, tangible benefits from a fairer society: for example, imagine how classroom conditions would improve if all the kids in our classes came from homes where parents earned a living wage, or if we didn’t live in a province where Black and Indigenous youth make up such a disproportionate number of incarcerated young offenders.
More importantly, though, advocating for social justice is the right thing to do. (For more on social justice unionism, click here.)
4. The new NSTU president needs to increase authentic member participation in union affairs. Unions are democratically-run organizations. Members vote for their school union rep as well as their local and provincial executive officers, and of course on whether to ratify negotiated contracts.
However, beyond these votes the vast majority of members never participate in the workings of their union. It’s not hard to see why: aside from becoming an elected officer or school rep, there are few concrete opportunities for members to become involved. I’m told that 30 years ago, at least in some parts of Nova Scotia most teachers attended their union local’s meetings; it’s clear that this hasn’t been the case for some time. Anecdotally, it seems that a great many (most?) teachers currently employed in this province have never been invited to attend a union meeting, or even notified of where and when they are.
This needs to change. Members need to feel a strong sense of belonging to their union in order for it to have real power. Union leaders need to find ways for members to connect meaningfully and regularly with their union, ideally right at their worksite. It’s not immediately obvious what exactly this might look like, though a few urban U.S. teacher unions have seen some interesting revitalizations of late.
We can’t afford not to figure it out, though: when challenges like Bill 148 come our way, we need to have a membership that is engaged and ready to mobilize effectively. The process can’t just start when contract time rolls around.
5. The new NSTU president needs to understand the inner workings of the union. A modern union is a complex beast. Being the public spokesperson for the province’s educators is an important role, but by no means the only job of an NSTU president. The president presides over meetings of the union executive, participates in contract negotiations, liaises with other unions, and works closely with union staff in a number of areas.
Any newly elected president faces a learning curve. But knowing the lay of the land in advance means that a new president can set the tone for the union, rather than having the tone set for them. There’s a dilemma here: being a union “insider” can sometimes mean unquestioningly accepting the status quo. But being too much of an “outsider” means that if elected, it can be hard to navigate the rules, procedures, by-laws, staff dynamics, and internal politics that govern a complex organization – and the status quo prevails anyway.
I think it’s useful here to look at Bernie Sanders’ success in the race for the U.S. Democratic Party presidential nomination. Bernie has always been an “outsider” in U.S. politics – for decades he was the only major elected U.S. politician to call himself a socialist, and he didn’t even join the Democratic Party until last year. But his longtime experience in Washington (as well as his consistency on issues like wealth inequality) has helped his credibility as a serious candidate for president. If he’s elected (still a long shot), he understands how the game works.
There are still nearly two months before voting day, and if no candidate gets 50% of the vote, a second round of voting between the top two candidates will take place on June 2nd, so it’s important to get to know them all.
Posters for all six candidates can be found here.
Cyril MacGillivray (none)