Student protest, December 5, 2016.

It’s Monday. So it must be time for the latest zig in the zig-zaggy, twisty-turny, tortured tale of Stephen McNeil and the Nova Scotia Teachers Union.

On Friday afternoon, the union announced its 9,300 members would resume their work-to-rule job action today because — in the words of union president Liette Doucet — “we don’t know if we have a contract.”

The Friday afternoon before that, the union had announced it was suspending the work-to-rule campaign it began back on December 5 because it believed it did have a contract — the province and the union had finally reached a(nother) tentative agreement.

What happened? How we got from the “there” of no-work-to-rule to the “here” of back-to-non-business-as-unusual is a tale that may — or may not be — worthy of Machiavelli.

But let us begin with the context, the interminable prologue to this seemingly never-ending drama.

Premier Stephen McNeil. Photo: Halifax Examiner

Stephen McNeil’s Liberals arrived in office in 2013 determined to slay the public sector union dragon. After they tried — and failed — to decimate the ranks of the Nova Scotia Government Employees Union by moving some of their members to other unions, they trained their bullseye on what they assumed was the weak link in the solidarity chain: the Nova Scotia Teachers Union.

Teachers were milquetoast, not militant. They’d had the right to strike since 1974, but had never once exercised it. Strike a good-for-the-government deal with a major union like the teachers — or so the reasoning went — and the other, more militant public sector unions would have no choice but to fall in line.

At first, it seemed the Liberal strategy was working. In mid-November 2015, with the long, dark shadow of a draconian government-legislated settlement hanging over their discussions, the teachers union and the province agreed to a tentative contract after only a month-and-a-half of back-and-forth negotiations. Its provisions neatly mirrored the government’s tough talk almost clause-for-clause.

The NSGEU — seeing the chalk on the blackboard — reluctantly agreed to recommend a similar contract to its members.

Break out the champagne. Prepare the writ. Stephen McNeil’s Liberal government was on its way to a second majority government.

Except —

On Dec. 1, 2015, 94 per cent of the province’s teachers voted 61 per cent to reject the tentative deal. Teachers, it turned out, were madder than hell — at the McNeil government for its bully-boy tactics, at their own union negotiators for going along with the deal — and they weren’t going to take it anymore.

And that was the beginning of what has been an unpredictable year-long roller-coaster ride.

A new union executive struck yet another tentative deal in October. This time 96 per cent of teachers turned out to vote 70 per cent to reject it, and then gave their union an overwhelming 96 per cent strike mandate.

Education Minister Karen Casey. Photo: Ryan Taplin / Local Xpress

In early December, the union upped the ante, announcing plans to begin to work to rule. Before that could happen, Education minister Karen Casey countered by declaring she was locking out the students for their own “safety,” and the government recalled the legislature to impose its previously rejected contract on the teachers.

On that particularly chaotic Monday, the Liberal caucus — facing public and parent fury for its government’s blundering stupidity — revolted. Casey flip-flopped, and the government sent the MLAs home without even introducing its announced legislation. And the teachers continued to work to rule.

Just another Monday in Chaos.

Which eventually led to conciliation, then more negotiations, then yet another tentative contract, suspension of the union’s work to rule campaign and a “pleased-to-have-reached-this-point” news release from Karen Casey.

Except —

Well, for starters, the no-longer-milquetoast teachers still don’t appear to like much about what their union leaders have described as “the best deal that was available.”

The agreement reduces a planned wage freeze from 24 months to 20 months, gives the teachers two extra days of paid leave per year and sets up a union-department committee to address “challenges” teachers face on the job. For many, that didn’t seem like “the best deal” after a year and a half.

What would happen if the teachers rejected a third tentative contract when they vote February 8? What would that say about the union executive’s ability to represent their members?

Perhaps fortuitously, perhaps not, enter Stephen Bull-in-a-China-Shop McNeil. McNeil decided to publicly dispute the union’s interpretation of “two days of paid leave.” The union had told its members that since the government refused to budge on its decision to end long-service awards, “we are taking back one per cent of our service over course of agreement… Teachers will now receive two paid days off to be used during the school year.”

“Those were not days off,” McNeil — who wasn’t in on the negotiations — told reporters. “They were actually for marking.”

Which gave union president Liette Doucet the opportunity to argue McNeil had “reneged on the agreement,” which gave Doucet reason enough to resume work to rule, and may ultimately give the union executive cover if the teachers reject this deal too.

As for McNeil, it’s entirely possible he blundered into this without considering the consequences — or it’s equally possible he wants the teachers to reject the agreement so he can impose a worse deal on them. If they reject a third tentative agreement, it strengthens the government’s eventual courtroom argument it had done its best to negotiate and had no choice but to impose a contract. Machiavellian?

What’s next?

Who knows? Next Monday is just another chaotic week away!

Stephen Kimber is an award-winning writer, editor, broadcaster, and educator. A journalist for more than 50 years whose work has appeared in most Canadian newspapers and magazines, he is the author of...

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  1. It’s all of a piece.

    Sharing economy service executives like those at Uber, clueless business people like Mark Lever at the Herald and cruel idiots like our noble premier see working people as chumps who are speedbumps in the road to their own personal vanity and enrichment. Certainly not valued partners in a fast disintegrating social contract. Is their any hope?

    No wonder Trump won them over in Wisconsin and Michigan with his lies. Bravo to the teachers and the HTU folks for manning the parapets. We all may have to join them soon enough.

  2. It’s interesting how Kimber is presenting a biased view of what happened both at the beginning of December — where his short form writing misrepresents the legal bind the government was in, either Kimber doesn’t understand the legal issues involved and the actions the government took or is deliberately misrepresenting them — and particularly the statements about what McNeil was saying about the language in the tentative agreement this past week.

    Overall it was the union misrepresenting the language in the tentative agreement, not McNeil. The TA language specifically said the leave was for professional development and other professional tasks….it was not for vacation, it was not “two paid days off”, and the TA language made this quite clear. Marking was an example of what it could be used for and was consistent with the TA language. Kimber’s writing makes it appear that it was McNeil who was misrepresenting the agreed-upon language in the TA and not the union, and that is simply untrue.

    I’m beginning to believe that reading Kimber is a waste of my time….I expect more from both a journalist and from a university faculty member and if this represents the quality of work one can expect from him and from articles behind the paywall then I’m wasting my money having a subscription.

    1. Care to elaborate on the “legal bind” the government was in? You are talking about the safety of students I guess? And how locking them out of school was the only way to ensure it?

      I’d expect our elected representatives to be a bit more creative with their solutions to the problems facing us.

      This entire debacle is justified by McNeil and AIMS by saying we have no money. Funny, we had enough money for the Nova Centre and his circle of PR folks (when the communications department is already at an all-time high budget and staff wise).

      This is the worst leadership this province has seen in a long time. Also, the role of the media is to keep the powerful in check and to represent the viewpoints of those who have no voice. I believe that’s what you’re paying for when you subscribe to the examiner. At least that’s what I’m paying for.

  3. This whole dispute is going in a spiral.
    I have another concern which for reasons I cannot fathom are not being mentioned at all.
    Every four years we pretend to elected people, usually in alphabetical order, to something called a “school board”. The board is supposed to be the employer of teachers, and is also responsible, according to the HRB website, for the kind of classroom issues which keeps coming up in the dispute. No where in this teachers’ dispute has anyone even mentioned a school board.
    To be blunt, school boards have no purpose or relevance. Even when they do things like develop priority lists for school construction and repairs, they are ignored and the Province builds schools based on politics.
    School boards need to be abolished. Period.

    1. Agree, totally.

      There were no school boards where I grew up in a far larger jurisdiction than Nova Scotia, and it worked. Sure, there were complaints about individual teachers and schools – just as we sometimes hear here, but the system function, and the government was directly held responsible for school closures and other consequences of their policy.

      I once knew the second in command of the HRSB and when I asked her why we needed school boards even she couldn’t offer an answer.

      1. Newfoundland and Labrador recently moved to a one school board (English speaking) in 2013 and I assume they saved a considerable amount of money. There doesn’t seem to be a need to have so many in our Province.

  4. To me it comes down to the way the government approached these contracts. Had they come to the table with a real intention of bargaining they might have received some of the concessions they were looking for.