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Nova Scotia can afford to respect its public sector workers

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Photo: Tom Woodward/flickr

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One of the best parts of being a teacher is when students let you know they appreciate the work you do.

It happens more than you might think. Despite the common, timeless sentiment that kids-today-ain't-got-no-respect, students do express their appreciation in lots of ways: a thank-you in passing, a question that shows interest in what they're learning, a compliment delivered via a parent at parent-teacher, the occasional goodie or card at holiday time.

Any teacher will tell you that appreciation coming from the kids is a great motivator. But it'd be nice if we also got it from the government that employs us.

Along with other public employees, teachers in Nova Scotia recently had our wages frozen for two years, and retirement benefits rolled back, through legislation by the provincial Liberal government.

A few weeks before, negotiators from the Nova Scotia Teachers Union had actually worked out a tentative new contract with the government, one that even included the same wage freeze (with below-inflation raises in the following two years).

When asked to vote on the contract, a majority of teachers rejected the deal. When asked why, most said that money wasn't the issue. Rather, they were upset that the deal didn't address ever-worsening classroom conditions -- ballooning class sizes, lack of supports for increasing numbers of students with special needs, and a creeping obsession with data collection and paperwork which takes teachers' time away from actually teaching.

The wage-freeze legislation came by surprise, in a series of all-night sittings the week before Christmas, as teachers were being told that government negotiators were working out dates to get back to the bargaining table with the union.

The government figures it has some political capital to spend. A recent poll had the provincial Liberals riding the Trudeau wave to high approval ratings. Premier Stephen McNeil doesn't think the general public sympathizes with unionized workers, who generally already enjoy better wages and working conditions than non-union workers.

But demonizing public sector workers is a divisive, cynical game to play, and one which rests on a faulty premise: that the province's finances are in dire shape.

The doom-and-gloom rhetoric of austerity has been sold to us for decades with the same chorus: government is broke; strong public services are unaffordable luxuries.

Year after year in Nova Scotia this line has been debunked by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives' Alternative Provincial Budget. In fact, the budget explains, Nova Scotia's debt-to-GDP ratio – "the best measure of a government's ability to pay off its debt" -- is quite reasonable, especially when compared to most other provinces, and doesn't justify fiscal panic.

Furthermore, since the 1980s Nova Scotia's economy grew steadily, but wages actually declined -- indicating that a disproportionate amount of wealth went to those on top of the economic ladder.

Austerity rhetoric pits workers against each other. In particular, public-sector workers are talked about as a cost to society, a burden that other workers -- taxpayers -- have to pay for. Forget that public-sector workers pay taxes too, and that strong up-front investments in public services tend to have net economic benefits. (A healthy, well-educated population results in a more productive workforce, for example.)

This leads to some twisted tacit conclusions about the relative value of certain types of work. Want to start a small business selling organic foot balm? Congratulations, you're a contributing member of society. Want to spend your life teaching children, caring for the sick, or administering social programs (jobs which, incidentally, are mostly done by women)? Shame on you, you're a burden whose cost the rest of us must bear.

On a personal, individual level, I don't think most people actually feel this way about public-sector workers. There are lots of good-news stories in the media about individual teachers, nurses or other public service providers.

Yet somehow, political discourse has sunk to a place where in the aggregate, public services are discussed predominantly in terms of how much wealth they supposedly drain from society. That's consistently demoralizing for the people who work to provide them.

At the same time, entrepreneurship is revered as an economic saviour and unquestioned social good, to the point where government can get away with funnelling several million to a completely failed business venture, and $850,000 in payroll rebates to a Caribbean bank linked to money laundering and tax avoidance.

It's almost enough to make me quit teaching and start looking into recipes for organic foot balm. I won't, though: I'd miss the Christmas cards from the kids.

Ben Sichel is a high school teacher in Dartmouth and has been a contributor to the CCPA-NS alternative provincial budget. This post first appeared on his blogsite.

Photo: Tom Woodward/flickr

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