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.
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.
Every so often I find myself in a conversation with someone who wonders if unions are still needed in Canada today.
Today we have laws to protect workers, they’ll say. There’s no more child labour; we get paid extra for overtime; employers can’t discriminate based on race, sex or anything else; employees are required to get breaks; etc. Why bother paying dues to a union?
A report last week from a panel that examined Ontario’s labour laws shows exactly why.