With 2 weeks left in the current provincial election campaign, Nova Scotia teachers are still smarting from a contract imposed on us by legislation earlier this year. Following the rejection of 3 tentative agreements that had been recommended by the teachers’ union executive, Stephen McNeil’s Liberal government pushed through Bill 75, which took away the right to strike, imposed wage freezes, and fell far short of the investments needed to fix the crisis in our public schools.
Given all this, it’s no surprise that teachers – many of whom voted Liberal in the last election – are looking to vote otherwise. Both the NDP and the PC party promise to repeal Bill 75, implement class size caps in all grades (presumably with adequate funding) and otherwise invest in education.
I’ll be supporting Gary Burrill’s NDP. Although like many teachers I was often disappointed with the NDP government from 2009-2013, Burrill has brought the party back to its worker-friendly roots. The NDP platform centres on progressive ideas like a $15 minimum wage and free tuition in community college. The PCs, despite trying to stake out some progressive territory during the teachers’ labour dispute, are still a fundamentally conservative party with an anti-worker bent.
Regardless of who wins though, the real work for teachers isn’t electing or defeating a government: it’s organizing a sustained, ongoing campaign to improve public education.
When McNeil was elected premier in 2013 many teachers initially seemed satisfied. The Nova Scotia Teachers Union (NSTU) had locked horns with the previous NDP government, and the Liberals had made increases to education funding central to their election platform.
That satisfaction bred complacency. When education minister Karen Casey released a flawed report in 2014 which promised U.S.-style reform to the education system, the NSTU’s official response was tepid. Not until teachers voted to reject a tentative agreement that had been recommended by their union executive was there any indication that rank-and-file teachers were ready for a fight. That fight went on for months with countless rallies, visits to elected officials, social media campaigns, seven weeks of work-to-rule and a one-day strike.
With the contract imposed and the union no longer in a legal strike position, things went relatively quiet. The election has provided a focal point for many teachers to get political again, and it certainly matters who gets elected to sit in Province House. But it matters even more that teachers sustain and focus our fighting energy beyond election day. We need to ensure that issues like class sizes, funding for students with special needs and the effects of poverty on education remain front and centre in the public eye. If members are dissatisfied with how their union keeps them engaged in this fight, we need to organize ourselves to make sure the union’s resources are being used to further these goals.
Any government that gets elected on May 30th is going to face pressure from all sides. There are plenty of well-funded and well-organized interests who want to keep starving public services like education. It’s imperative that teachers be smart in figuring out how to push in the other direction.
* A group of teachers has been meeting independently in HRM to strategize about making our public education system stronger while protecting the rights of those working in education. If you’re interested, join the Educators for Social Justice Facebook group.