Empty Classes: A Week in the Life of a Labor Dispute

The most insightful comment I’ve heard about developments this week in the dispute between the Nova Scotia government and the Nova Scotia Teachers Union (NSTU) came from a former union organizer of my acquaintance, who said the government’s decision to lock students out amazed her:

One of the hardest things about striking is that the public sees the strikers as directly responsible for not providing whatever service it is, and it’s hard to explain that responsibility lies with the management/government that forced the workers into a position where they had to strike.


Student-free Nova Scotia classroom on Monday (Photo via Twitter)

In the case of the teachers, going on strike would not only deprive parents of a service, it would upend their lives, throwing them into a last-minute scramble for childcare; forcing them to pay for that childcare at a time of year when budgets are tight to begin with; making life, for the working poor, just a touch more stressful during “the hap-happiest time of the year.”

I’m guessing considerations like those are part of the reason why the NSTU has never before gone on strike. Why the union, although it has a convincing strike mandate right now, opted to work-to-rule last week rather than strike.

So why the Nova Scotia government, faced with those same considerations, decided to damn the torpedoes, lock the province’s students out of school and wear the resulting chaos like a bull’s eye on its forehead was beyond my organizer friend’s comprehension—and I must admit, it was beyond mine too.

Monday’s volte-face (Education and Early Childhood Development Minister Karen Casey announced the “safety concerns” which had caused them to close the schools had been dealt with and students would return to class on Tuesday) suggests somebody pointed all this out to the government.



I’ve been trying to educate myself about the dispute over the past few days, employing a skill I acquired in a Nova Scotia public school some years back: I’ve been reading.

I started with former NDP MLA and finance minister Graham Steele’s Facebook page, where he’s been doing for Nova Scotians what Schoolhouse Rock! did for a generation of American children, that is, explaining how a bill becomes a law.

The bill in this case — Bill 75, the Teachers’ Professional Agreement (2016) Act — would force the NSTU to accept the contract its membership rejected, quite resoundingly, in September. Steele was going to follow the bill as it made its way through the legislature, but Casey went off-script on Monday, and declined to table the legislation.

(That said, she didn’t rule out tabling it later, introducing a downright Trumpian element of surprise into the proceedings. Let’s just hope she doesn’t take to Twitter to negotiate with the union).

Steele thinks Casey’s change of heart was inspired by a mutiny in the Liberal Caucus (like the one on the Bounty, only with fewer swords). I also enjoyed this post in which he wondered whether the government even had the legal authority to close the schools and decided it probably didn’t.

And that’s not the only legal question that has bobbed to the surface of these negotiations. Katie Toth, writing (behind a paywall) for the Halifax Examiner asked a labor lawyer friend about the legality of the government forcing a contract on the teachers and her lawyer friend (oh, give him a name, call him Albert Gaudio) brought up a bunch of Supreme Court of Canada decisions (while, to my delight, working in the word “bupkis”) that suggest the McNeil government could find itself on the very wrong side of the law. (He then raised the disheartening possibility that it might opt for the non-legal option anyway, assuming that by the time the case had made its way through the courts, no one would care anymore. About which, I would just like to say right now — I would care.)


Follow the Money?

The labor dispute inspired Frank Magazine to — surprise surprise! — reprint a list of teacher salaries.

I understand that trying to drum up support for teachers on the issue of pay is a losing battle, especially in a place like the Cape Breton Regional Municipality where median total income in 2014 was $27,640. By way of comparison, teachers salaries last year started at $46,118 and topped out at $92,286. (Principals and vice principals inched up beyond $100,000).

According to Nova Scotia businessman/pundit Bill Black, the average teacher salary in Nova Scotia in 2015 was $76,133. He and I both had the same idea, which was to go to these Stats Canada’s income charts and try to compute the percentage of Nova Scotians making that much money. The latest Statscan figures are for 2014, but let’s call that close enough. I decided to focus on Cape Breton Island and my calculations show that people earning $75,000 to $100,000 represent 6.2%* of all earners here.


Photo via Twitter.

So yes, teachers are really well paid by Cape Breton standards and while I agree with Dr StrangeJob that it would be nice to see some of that largess shared with support staff, I can’t get too angry about teacher salaries. Don’t we want to pay teachers well? To become a teacher in Nova Scotia requires a minimum five years’ post-secondary education and that, I think we can all agree, does not come cheap.

Moreover, upgrading your certification requires an additional investment of time and money. (And I know what you’re going to say, ‘What about those 40 teachers who upgraded their certification by watching old episodes of Coach on DVD or something? And what about the 464 others who were about to do the same before Casey stopped them?” All I can say is, they represented roughly 6% of the over 9,000 teachers in the NSTU and they had a contempt for education that clearly should have been caught much earlier in the certification process.)

Most of all, I think filtering public money through public servants like teachers and nurses into the economy makes a lot more sense than filtering it through a pulp and paper mill or a second cruise ship berth or John Risley. Not only do you get your children educated and your injuries tended to, you get people who support local businesses and sports teams and arts venues and craftspeople. People who pay for plumbing and electrical work and kitchen renos and landscaping and small engine repair. People who also pay taxes.

If you expect me to get excited about a cruise ship tourist who comes here once and spends $66 because of the “direct and indirect economic impact” of such spending, then you have to expect me to be more excited about the direct and indirect economic impact of having well-paid public servants living in our community.

Bill Black, in fact, is okay with teachers’ salaries—his problem is with their pensions and benefits that are “far richer than the private sector.”

Because if public sector benefits are richer than private sector benefits the answer, of course, is to lower public sector benefits. (Only don’t tell that to the businesspeople who manage teachers’ pension funds, they won’t agree, a fact which I find really, really funny.)


Run it Like a Business

Nothing makes my eyes cross harder than the notion that government should be run like a business. It’s double-barreled nonsense because a) government is not a business and b) have you seen the way some businesses are run?

That government is not a business is a truth we should hold to be self-evident. Is its sole reason for being the making of profits? No. Because it’s not a business. Were you hired by Canada to be a citizen? No. Because Canada is not a business. Does the Province of Nova Scotia buy up other provinces to become a “conglomerate” province able to realize “synergies?” No, because the Province of Nova Scotia is not a business.

Photo via Twitter.

Photo via Twitter.

And yet there is a type of person — frequently either a career politician who has never worked in business or a career businessperson who has never worked in the public sector — who thinks all our problems would be solved if our government were run more like General Electric. The United States has lots of people like this, which is why the United States has charter schools and for-profit prisons and a healthcare system run by insurance companies.

In the Nova Scotia P-12 education system this “run it like a business” mindset has led to the adoption of data-collection techniques intended to track “outcomes” and ensure teacher “accountability.” To read the comments from teachers, it seems they spend more time tracking what they’ve done than actually doing things. Take this sort of practice to its logical conclusion and you get what’s happening to UPS drivers:

On the surface, UPS trucks look the same as they did more than 20 years ago, when Bill Earle started driving for the company in rural Pennsylvania.

But underneath the surface, Earle says, the job has changed a lot. The thing you sign your name on when the UPS guy gives you a package used to be a piece of paper. Now it’s a computer that tells Earle everything he needs to know.

The computer doesn’t just give advice. It gathers data all day long. Earle’s truck is also full of sensors that record to the second when he opens or closes the door behind him, buckles his seat belt and when he starts the truck.

Technology means that no matter what kind of job you have — even if you’re alone in a truck on an empty road — your company can now measure everything you do.

In Earle’s case, those measurements go into a little black box in the back of his truck. At the end of the day, the data get sent to Paramus, N.J., where computers crunch through the data from UPS trucks across the country. (NPR, April 2014)

The pay-off for UPS drivers is that they’re much better paid then they were in the 1990s, but that seems only fair given that they also make many more deliveries per day. Data collected has been used to decide how trucks should be loaded in the morning for maximum efficiency; to design routes that avoid time-consuming left-hand turns; and to discourage backing up, which can lead to accidents (Earle said he is told almost every day that he has backed up either too often or too quickly, based on what his stool pigeon truck has told the bosses.) The effect is to treat drivers less like human beings and more like robots to be programmed (and of course, when the time is right and the technology ready, Earle will probably be replaced by a robot — first a self-driving truck, then a delivery drone).

I like data as much as the next person, but data entry is one of the most soul-destroying jobs I have ever done in my life — worse than selling hamburgers at a 24-hour Harvey’s. And if you crunched every ounce of data you could squeeze out of the N.S. educational system and fed it through the best management software known to man, would it spit out a better plan than: hire good people, give them the resources they need, get out of their way?

*Those are my calculations, if any math teachers check them and find out I’ve erred, I will correct them!

(Disagree? Let me have it!)


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