Saturday, January 15, 2011

Not the only one...

Yep, I love allusions to pop culture.

Now onto the main idea. I have often opined about the dinosaur-era public awareness strategy employed by the NSTU since I moved back to Halifax from Montreal in 2001.

As a newly permanent teacher with the English Montreal School Board, I felt like our union was militaristic- nothing happened that they didn't monitor or report in terms of respect our collective agreement. In some respects I felt like the tactics used by the MTA contributed to a relationship with administration (who were represented in collective bargaining by an entity complete other than the MTA, which is a whole other can of worms for another post), but then I discovered the joy of working in Nova Scotia under the popular myth that the Nova Scotia Teachers Union was the most powerful and feared union in the province (or so Brian Forbes and Mary Lou Donnelly, the two most recent past presidents, repeatedly told our membership).

Here, NO ONE monitored violations of the collective agreement. Principals wanted to have multiple, two hour staff meetings per month? Not a peep. Sure, we won an article in the last contract that stated that staff meetings had to conclude 90 minutes after the end of the instructional day. And then NSTU executive staff officer Gerard Cormier, whose office in the ivory tower one would assume meant proximity to intimate knowledge of recent wins, came as a guest and blew away that statute in a presentation that went 45 minutes past our agreement. Who needs admin to violate the contract when our own executive staff members, paid six figures to represent our interests in collective bargaining, are willing to do it for them?

And NO ONE talked to the press, pretty much ever, unless in reaction to an overnight controversy- no proactive presence, no strategy to leverage the power of local radio, TV or print media on a regular basis to get the issues facing education in our province into the public head space consistently through informed presentation and debate of teacher perspectives. In ten years, I can count on one hand the number of times I have heard our president on local talk radio, and those times have been limited to responding to requests by the host rather than the president reaching out and requesting air time, as other leaders have done (Peter Kelly, Darrell Dexter and assorted federal MPs, to name a few).

BUT, do we do smarmy nondescript holiday ads! Mary Lou and Alexis have perfected the 30 second, smiling president with babies and young children spots in the past five years. If any media presence is better than none, then I guess this one step would count as quantum improvement. However, as part of the first always on media-steeped generation, any coverage is NOT better coverage.

Yesterday, the Chignecto Regional School Board held a public meeting to outline their proposal to cut 21% of their budget over the next three years, as per the request of the Minister of Education. In TV coverage, Joan Jessome (head of the union that represents educational program assistants) was asked why the NSTU has maintained near radio silence with catastrophic cuts being bandied about rather than go on the offensive and make it clear to Nova Scotians what cuts of this magnitude would mean about the quality of education in our public schools.

Jessome, in what can only be described as a non-answer, essentially said that she can't fathom a 21% cut and what it would do.

It's disturbing that the NSTU can't recognize how feeble it has becoming in advocating for quality in education. Nova Scotia has languished near the very bottom of per capita funding for education for well over a decade, and until we launched a campaign called Save Grade 2 last year, you'd never know funding was an issue based on the the non-communication of the crisis to the public by the NSTU over that same period. When the Dexter government was elected, the NSTU collectively jumped for joy, fully expecting that an NDP government would finally give education its due. Then Community College faculty got a 1% pay raise in the first year of their new collected agreement and nothing for the remainder. Friendly indeed!

Now, with the same NDP government rumbling about cutting 21% (aside: I'm just waiting for someone to utter the phrase "read my lips" after hearing how this whole thing is just about getting information... Where there's smoke, I think the saying goes...), the best our president, earning 150% of her normal teaching/administrative salary to herald the cause of teachers to the public and government, can do is to talk about how stressed we are.

I wondered if this was only distressing to me, but the response from the meeting held by the Chignecto Regional School Board shows that not only are union members within the NSTU questioning the sanity of paying around $700 annually for such ineffective leadership and representation, but the public, fellow labour partners, school boards and others who have heard the NSTU spout longstanding rhetoric about being the stewards and leaders of public education are following suit too.

Perhaps I will come off as ageist, but I have said it before and I'll say it again. The fact that so many of our executive staff officers have spent a decade or more at the palace on Joe Howe DriveScotia since the Savage Liberals gutted education with cuts in the 90's that schools, students and teachers have never recovered from.

If I take any comfort in our present bumbling, it's that I finally have company on the wagon that recognizes that the NSTU stopped being relevant or effective a long time ago and is now a laughingstock without credibility to all the stakeholders we need support from to make our schools truly effective. To all the newcomers onboard? It's a disheartening ride with no end in sight. Wanna share a seat cushion?

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