Last week, Nova Scotia’s 9,000 teachers decisively rejected a tentative contract with the provincial government. With their vote, the teachers instantly scuppered Stephen McNeil’s carefully crafted strategy to bring public sector unions to heel before introducing a see-we-did-it balanced budget in advance of the next provincial election.
McNeil had begun strategically with the teachers, traditionally the least militant of the province’s public sector unions. He coupled his deliberately insubstantial wage offer — just three per cent over five years — with the threat of what the teachers union called “impending draconian legislation” if teachers turned it down.
The union leadership quickly caved, holding its nose and recommending the tentative deal. The very next day, the usually much more militant Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union (NSGEU) read the writing on the blackboard, and announced it too would recommend a similar deal to its 7,600 members.
Then the teachers voted: 94 per cent of them, with 61 per cent of those casting ballots saying no way. Within hours, the NSGEU took down its own white flag, announcing it would put off its ratification vote and consult with its membership.
And that may be the end of Stephen McNeil’s grand scheme.
What is intriguing — and instructive — about all of this is that most teachers who’ve spoken publicly since the vote say their personal tipping point wasn’t the wage offer, but the government’s bully-boy, take-it-or-take-this tactics.
They were also concerned about what one teacher described as “the state of education in Nova Scotia,” including the lack of resources to cope with students with special needs, ever increasing class sizes and a blame-the-teacher attitude that seeps from many of the pages of the government’s recent so-called Action Plan for education reform. Those were never part of the discussion.
Instead, borrowing a now-tattered page from the Stephen Harper Playbook, Stephen McNeil had decided from his government’s beginnings to make public sector workers the enemy. His new government’s first piece of legislation, in fact, ripped up even the strike-threat weapon. Last year, he tried — ultimately unsuccessfully, but after sending a clear don’t-mess-with-us message — to hobble the province’s most powerful and militant union, the NSGEU, by scattering many of its health workers among other unions.
That strategy was to culminate with this year’s round of public sector non-bargaining in no-increases-until-at-least-after-the-next-election contracts. Thanks largely to Stephen McNeil’s approach, his government is facing a winter of labour discontent.
The Stephen Harper Playbook seems to be playing less well these days.