Teacher contract negotiations normally rarely hit the news unless the talks go off the rails. With the school year approaching in August, deals emerge in an atmosphere of urgency where both the provincial government and the unions seek to avert back-to-school disruptions. Except for the protracted, bitter 2013-14 British Columbia teachers’ strike and lock-out, government-union negotiating teams much prefer to settle critical contract matters behind closed doors. Until the current round, the Nova Scotia government and the provincial teacher union, the NSTU, kept everything under wraps and the public completely in the dark.
A recent flurry of teacher union settlements in Canada’s largest province may have changed all that. Premier Kathleen Wynne set out to secure “net-zero” salary contracts, then reached an 11th hour deal with the Ontario Secondary Schools Teachers Federation (OSSTF) in late August 2015 for 2.5% over the next two years, including an additional paid holiday and improved sick leave. That OSSTF deal set the benchmark and appeared to provide the framework for deals with Ontario’s other teachers’ unions.
Pulling deals out of the fire on the eve of the school year raised suspicions about the avowedly teacher-friendly Wynne Government. A couple of weeks ago, the province was rocked by a series of explosive Toronto Globe and Mail revelations. The OSSTF settlement included a confidential $1 million pay-out to compensate that teachers’ union for its negotiating costs, and the payouts to all unions totalled $2.5 million. In addition to the $1 million paid out to the OSSTF, the Government paid $1 million to the catholic teachers’ union, plus $500,000 to the francophone teachers’ union in the current bargaining round. Going back to 2008, over three bargaining rounds, the total confidential payouts reached $3.47 million.
Digging deeper, Adrian Morrow of The Globe and Mail then unearthed new information: Ontario’s high school teachers’ union was sitting on more than $65-million in financial reserves while negotiating the secret $1-million payment from the Liberal government to cover is bargaining costs. Furthermore, that same union spent $1.8-million from that reserve fund on political activities and allocated hundreds of thousands more for bargaining expenses in the year before it negotiated the government payout.
While Ontario bargaining deals are dominating the education news cycle, teacher talks are proceeding very quietly in Nova Scotia. Taking a page from the Ontario Wynne Government playbook, Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil and Finance Minister Randy Delorey broke with the normal protocol. Starting in August 2015, they prepared the ground for a five year period of public sector salary restraint. In late September, the Premier went public with an initial offer to the province’s 9,400 teachers: a five-year contract (0-0-0-1-1) totaling 2 per cent (2015-2019).
The Nova Scotia Government staked out its ground with the public, putting the province’s “ability to pay” on the table. After noting that 40 per cent of all newer teachers (years 1 to 10) would still get their step increases, the Premier also signaled that, in return, nothing else would be taken away. That suggested that the province’s costly extra qualification teacher salary upgrade system (exploited by teachers taking Drake University online education courses), ending winter storm season PD days, and removing principals from the union would remain ‘untouchables.’
Teachers unions wield tremendous power in most, if not all, Canadian provincial education systems. In British Columbia, the Liberal Government of Christy Clark has survived intense labour battles, work-to-rule protests and lengthy disruptions, most fought over upholding a 2003 settlement removing class size and class composition from the provincial contracts. Successive BC governments have succeeded in containing education costs and maintaining student performance standards, in spite of recurrent education sector conflict.
Three provinces, Ontario, BC and Nova Scotia, each confront formidable teachers’ unions and seem to be taking differing approaches. Canada’s Pacific province is renowned for its periodic “class struggles.” Ontario is more typical: taking tough at the outset, then caving-in at the bargaining table. Some independent education observers, most notably Margaret Wente of The Globe and Mail, see the Ontario bargaining payouts and contract climb-downs as confirmation that “teachers’ unions rule” the roost. Whether Nova Scotia holds the line or abandons the field is now anyone’s guess.
Why do Canadian teachers’ unions hold such a sway over the provincial school systems? Is the British Columbia approach to controlling costs and restoring management rights to the assignment of teaching staff the way to go? How common is the practice of paying the unions to negotiate their own provincial agreements? Who really gains from hard ball teacher negotiations?