Saturday, May 17, 2008

U for useless?

This picture sums up just about everything wrong with the NSTU.

Once again the faces at the negotiating table lack two critical things:
1. Real qualifications as negotiators (none of these people is a lawyer, or someone who specializes in negotiating collective agreements as their sole vocation and has a proven track record of winning outstanding gains in collective bargaining)
2. Real perspective that matters to huge portions of the teaching population in Nova Scotia (old, old, old, old, old... Good mix of teaching experience and career status to ensure values and priorities are balanced, no?)

I'm not here to argue that there isn't experience in participating in negotiations at the table- some of this crew has done the dance before, and several times, at that.

But let's be honest- teachers have had their contractual backsides handed to them since 1993 when we got served, and the government of Nova Scotia was successful in dividing and conquering the membership of the NSTU.

The then sitting president concocted a deal that gave him and his close-to-retirement cronies a golden parachute achieved by selling out substitutes and early career teachers that laid the foundation for what remains an ongoing tension in values and priorities between permanent and early career teachers.

One only needs to revisit the maelstrom that was the pension debacle of 2006, where 45% of teachers who voted spoiled their ballots in protest over the single-dimensional options presented by the NSTU leadership to select from. We could choose between unpalatable option 1 or unpalatable option 2. The deal that appealed to the long term interests of early career teachers trumped the interests of teachers close to retirement, and now Nova Scotia teachers pay more of their salary towards their pension than anyone else in the province OR country.

That has translated into many people close to retirement staying on long past their eligible to retire dates out of fears that their pension will not be indexed, and may not be indexed, for years to come. Believing that they need to max out their pensions means the wave of retirements that was supposed to usher in a prolonged window of opportunity for younger teachers was much abbreviated, that mythical window called a "teaching shortage" is shut, with numbers of permanent hire positions available during the first two rounds to date down sharply compared to last year.

The last two contracts I have been in Nova Scotia for were a farce- the NSTU trumpeted yearly salary increases of 2.9% for the life of the contracts won as major victories, while refusing to put any significant items in our asking packages (let alone collective bargaining) to address the abysmal state of affairs for substitutes and early career teachers. 2.9% hasn't covered the cost of living increases for anyone in 6 years, and our braintrust at the beige fortress on Joe Howe Drive would have us believe that we've really put it to the government.

Gains by other Labour unions in NS have clearly outpaced those of teachers, and while our leadership love to stroke their overpaid egos with the notion that the NSTU is the most feared union in the province, teachers on the ground level see the lack of vision and strength in our paid staff and elected leaders and recognize that we are a ship stuck on a path for status quo, a status quo guaranteed to leave us on the perpetual short end of the stick.

If the candidates running for NSTU president (Alexis Allen, Eric Boutilier, Simon Wilkin, Jack Toomey, Russell Comeau- the latter two don't even have a website...) are any indication, that's not about to change any time soon.

The negotiations underway are pretty much guaranteed to result in farcical gains as well- the salary increases we asked for are so low that we're banking on getting 2.9% annually again. There is no discernible effort or priority to win bigger gains to offset the wage freezes of the 90's.
The bottom line is that these negotiators get paid their 6 figures and expenses whether they make gains or not.

I'd feel much better if our dues were spent on a ringer of a negotiator who got paid according to the gains won.

The other thing that bothers me is that not one of the faces on the team represents younger or early career teachers in current or recent experience.

This is troublesome because you always fall back on what you know best, and for a good portion of this team, that's what teaching was like a decade ago, either because they're professional Union workers who haven't been in a classroom or they're principals.

Equally problematic is that this aspect of union business is not being carried out with any vision to equipping and enabling a new generation to take things to a higher level. We are relying on old war horses with an incremental approach that has proven to be slower to win gains than the rate of increases in cost of living. We continue to do things the same way and expect different gains. I think someone once called that insanity...

I look to the steel nerved leadership teachers in British Columbia got from their union a few short years ago when the provincial government tried to legislate teachers' ability to represent themselves effectively in collective bargaining away and threatened wage garnishing and legal consequences.

Our leadership flinched at that rumour in 1993 and sold out its most vulnerable members to make sure those who were already entrenched and taken care of stayed that way.

In BC, the union pulled its membership together, stared the government down and told them they weren't going to have any of it, and stuck to an agenda that aggressively pursued important wins for teachers across the board, especially for supply and early career teachers.

Last time Nova Scotia's teachers were negotiating, we had a 96% strike mandate because teachers were sick of the low pay and strained working conditions, and the core of the team working on our behalf today parlayed that show of strength in 2.9% annually over 4 years with no significant changes for substitute and early career teachers, far and away the population that needs the strongest advocacy in contract negotiations, and passed it off as a big fat win.

Forgive me if I don't stand up and cheer for that same core now as they present a deal which almost ensures either status quo or gains that are so minimal as to be hardly noticeable at all. Mary Lou Donnelly has advised teachers at every turn to take whatever deal is on the table yet. Don't expect her very-close-to-retirement perspective and cohort of negotiators, many of whom are long removed from the classroom, to change and encourage teachers to stand up for what matters to them and win the gains that we should be after.

I can't believe I pay almost $700 a year for leadership like this...

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