As teachers in Nova Scotia mull over their bargaining team’s third attempt at a tentative agreement in just over a year, here are a few observations about the dispute, and about teachers’ and workers’ power in general.
1) Teachers have a new idea of what is possible. Many of the issues teachers have raised over the last year – overcrowded classrooms, insufficient supports for students with special needs, excessive amounts of time spent on clerical tasks – have worsened fairly slowly over the past 10-15 years. Change happened gradually enough that opposition to it was weak, and a general sense of resignation slowly set in.
As the contract dispute has progressed, teachers have started to think big. Class sizes of 35-40 are no longer thought of as inevitable. (New Brunswick has class caps of 29 even in upper grades.) Teachers are speaking out against endless “improvement plans” and “accountability” measures that never seem to result in actual improvements or accountability. The impossibility of meeting the growing diversity of classroom needs under constant cost-cutting budgets has become a serious topic of discussion.
Governments for decades have sold us on the idea that “we can’t afford to do this.” Teachers are now sold on the idea that “we can’t afford not to do this.”
2) Unions’ power comes from their members, not their leaders. When Premier Stephen McNeil reached lean tentative agreements with union leaders representing teachers and public servants in late 2015, it was prematurely reported that he’d succeeded in his goal of kneecapping the province’s biggest unions. Of course, both the premier and the media forgot that unions are not just the elected representatives of workers: unions are the workers themselves. Union leaders recommended that members vote to accept the tentative agreement, but members – the union – made the ultimate decision to vote no. They did so again when a second tentative agreement was reached in October 2016, and most indications are that the third attempt at a deal will be voted down as well on February 8th.
To be fair, many union members themselves are only just discovering their collective power. In modern unions rank-and-file members often feel disconnected from their union structures and leadership. The vast majority of members don’t attend regular union meetings and pay little attention to union affairs, except hot-button contractual issues (although most do recognize the role their union has played historically in securing existing benefits and job security).
Situations like the current one tend to demonstrate to members the need for cohesion and solidarity, and make members feel more invested in their union. There’s a reason why Liberal politicians are currently trying to tell the public that “the union doesn’t represent its members.” The challenge unions face is to maintain that level of personal investment in the long term, and channel it into meaningful participation. But for this to happen…
3) Unions’ internal organizing models need to evolve. Modern unions are often large, complex, formal institutions where a lot of work is done by full-time professional staff. This model works well for much of the day-to-day work of the union, like when a member needs advice on maternity leave or wants to challenge an employer who might not be respecting the contract. When the union needs to show its strength publicly officers can call members to a rally or demonstration. Members who are most keen to get involved in the union can run for election for their union’s executive or be union reps at their work sites.
Beyond this, though, there’s often little opportunity for most union members to become actively involved in the organization. This can seem more or less OK in times of relative labour peace: many members are happy to pay their dues and let staff and elected leaders do the heavy lifting, as long as things don’t get too bad in the workplace. But when the union becomes involved in a protracted political battle, the limitations of the model become apparent. In times of crisis members find themselves playing catch-up learning how their union and contract negotiations work, and often can feel powerless throughout the process.
Unions need to prioritize empowering their members to participate directly in union affairs, and not just at contract time. This requires a different way of thinking than is prevalent in many unions, and a lot of slow work. But if workers are to withstand sustained neoliberal attacks on wages, benefits and working conditions in both the private and public sectors, we need unions in which members truly experience the power of collective action.
This isn’t necessarily a critique of current individual union leaders: I’ve been in a union leadership position myself, and I know many leaders who work very hard to try to do what is best for their members. It’s the model that needs changing. Luckily, we can look to organizations like Labor Notes which guides and trains workers to organize themselves at the grassroots level; or to veteran organizers like Jane McAlevey whose books offer plenty of case studies of successful organizing models to learn from. The Chicago Teachers Union adopted an organizing culture which helped their unions make gains in a 2012 strike, and other teacher unions such as the Boston Teachers Union have followed suit, hiring organizing staff whose primary purpose is ensuring members can be meaningfully involved in union affairs.
The current dispute in Nova Scotia has provided some fertile ground for this kind of organizing to start: many teachers are interested in union matters for the first time. Going forward, the union has to make sure that interest is sustained.
4) Unions need to act strongly in solidarity with all workers, as well as marginalized people in general. We live in a time of absurd and worsening wealth inequality both globally and locally. Median annual earnings in Nova Scotia were just under $31,000 in 2014. One in five children across the province lives in poverty. The federal government continues to underfund services for Indigenous children, despite a court ruling ordering things to be fixed. Black Nova Scotians continue to fight systemic discrimination from police as well as the education system. And of course, a cadre of white supremacists, climate-change deniers and union-busters has taken over the most powerful government in the world.
Unions will always look after the interests of their members first and foremost. But they also need to be active in broader fights for equality and justice in their communities. For teachers unions, many social-justice issues relate closely to our own working conditions: fighting poverty, inequality and racism in our communities leads to direct benefits in our classrooms. Even if connections to some issues are less apparent, though, we still need to organize consistently in support of workers and marginalized people. Throughout the current dispute teachers have seen incredible support and solidarity from other unions in Nova Scotia, across the country, and even abroad, and from organized groups of parents and students. It’s incumbent on us to keep that solidarity flowing in all directions.
No matter what the result of the ratification vote is on February 8th, there’ll still be plenty of work for teachers to do.