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Nova Scotia teachers brace for government reprisals as strike looms

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On November 12, Nova Scotia Teacher Union's negotiator reached a tentative agreement with the Government of Nova Scotia. Negotiations had been quick, only about a month and a half.

The deal represented a compromise: the teachers would accept a wage freeze and the government promised to not pursue their system reforms. For the Nova Scotia Teachers Union representatives, that was a good enough deal to put to the membership for a vote.

The membership was not convinced. On Dec. 1., 94 per cent of the members of the NSTU voted and 61 per cent were against the proposal. "The decision to accept or reject this agreement was in our members' hands, and they have spoken," said NSTU president Shelley Morse in a press release.

Despite having had the right to strike enshrined in law in 1974, the NSTU has never been on strike. Throughout these negotiations, NSTU representatives have warned about the possibility of legislation ending their negotiations prematurely. Morse issued a statement that said that the NSTU executives recommended these reforms be passed "in the face of draconian legislation."

The contract expires July 2015.

In 1996, the NSTU was on the brink of a province-wide strike over education reforms and funding cuts ushered in by the Liberal government of John Savage. It's the closest it's ever been to going on strike.

The educational reforms considered by the Liberals are sweeping. The CBC quoted the NSTU to say that the Liberals were seeking:

"a lengthened and restructured work day; a lengthened and restructured school year; elimination of service awards on a go-forward basis; changes to teachers' responsibilities for student supervision; changes to certification including approval processes; reporting to work on inclement weather days; changes to access and distribution of professional development funding through article 60; and the removal of administrators from the NSTU."

Nova Scotia is the fourth province to have a major showdown between teachers and a Liberal government in the past few years. Teachers in Quebec are resisting similar reforms and have already had four days of strike this semester. Ontario's Liberals imposed a contract in 2012 without facing too much labour strife, in part thanks to their use of legislation to impose their will.

The Liberal government in British Columbia tried to impose similar reforms too. Teachers went on strike for five weeks to oppose changes to class sizes and reduced supports for students with special needs.  

In all of these situations, the government has used the threat of legislation to force negotiations to end. Had the Nova Scotia teachers accepted the settlement proposal, the Liberals could still impose their reforms through legislation later on. For many teachers, it was better to try and resolve more issues through bargaining than to walk away and wait for legislation to impose the government’s previous sectoral change plan.

Teachers aren't the only public sector workers in Nova Scotia bargaining right now. Civil servants, members of the NSGEU, are also in talks. If the teachers are watching how Premier Stephen McNeil deals with them, they’re right to fear a legislative outcome.

To the CBC yesterday, McNeil said: "I will use whatever legislative tools I have to ensure that we stay within the fiscal framework to make sure that not only can we deliver a fair collective agreement to employees who work for us, but that we can actually move our province back to balance."

Nova Scotia teachers and civil servants should look to Quebec for strategies on how to work together to bargain. McNeil's austerity measures are not unique to education. If public sector workers are hoping to resist austerity, it will take solidarity from across sectors to defeat these policies.

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