2nd tentative agreement in jeopardy days before Nova Scotia teachers set to vote

Nova Scotia premier Stephen McNeil chats with students at an event on April 20, 2016. The government is waiting to see how teachers vote on a tentative agreement on October 4. File Photo / Global News

The Nova Scotia Teachers Union is scrambling to shore up support for a new tentative agreement as many teachers are signalling they’re unhappy with the deal and prepared to vote no.

Teachers will vote Tuesday on whether to accept the tentative agreement reached between their union and the government in early September. But interviews with several teachers and comments on social media suggest the deal could be voted down.

READ MORE: Nova Scotia government has been ‘fair’ to teachers: Stephen McNeil

If it is rejected, it would be the second time in a year that union membership vote against a deal and against their union leadership. A similar deal was rejected in December, with teachers citing working conditions as the main sticking point.

In response to the rumblings of dissent, the union held a townhall on Tuesday evening and president Liette Doucet sent a letter to all teachers explaining why she voted in favour of the agreement.

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In the letter, obtained by Global News, Doucet told teachers she believes the deal is worth ratifying because “some gains have been made.”

The union declined an interview request, saying it would not comment publicly before teachers vote on the tentative agreement.

‘The agreement we voted down is the same we got back’

Teachers who spoke with Global News asked to remain anonymous, but many said they see few differences between the four-year deal they’re being asked to accept now, and the one rejected last year.

The wage package is the same: a two-year wage freeze followed by a three per cent increase over the last two years.

Cuts to the long service award remain in place except a “me-too” clause is added on, which states that if another union negotiates a better deal on the service award, the teachers would get whatever deal that union reaches.

“People are livid,” one teacher said. “The agreement we voted down is the same we got back.”

Doucet’s letter to teachers says changes to workplace conditions are where the union made gains. For example, a new workplace conditions committee will look at areas like teachers’ scope of practice, assessment and evaluation, and data collection and reporting.

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One teacher said the committee proposal amounts to “lip service” because he says the committee has no power to enforce suggested changes. Another teacher said the claim has “no teeth” because the contract language uses the word “may” instead of “shall.”

Yet another teacher said the committee can only be judged once it’s seen in action, all while predicting teachers will yet again reject the tentative agreement.

However, one teacher who didn’t agree to be quoted said some of the changes around work place conditions would make a difference for teachers.

Teachers feel respect for profession dwindling

Most of the teachers who spoke to Global News said they would vote against the deal.

“I think teachers are feeling like there is no choice but to stand up.”

He said teachers feel that respect for their profession is dwindling while the workload and class sizes creep up.

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Other teachers echoed that sentiment, saying the threat of wage legislation being imposed on teachers in the middle of negotiations was the latest in a long list of perceived slights from the government.

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“I’m not voting against it because of raises, I just don’t like the tone, its disrespectful,” one teacher said.

According to another teacher, people aren’t ready to strike on salaries, but they are “livid” about losing the long service award they feel they won in previous negotiation at the expense of salary increases.

The teachers also seem to be divided along rural/urban lines on whether to vote yes or no. Most teachers in Halifax said they think that divide will make the vote close. But one said the divide will tip the scales in favour of ratification.

“I think the rural vote and the nervous urban vote will accept it,” he said.

Possible reasons for that divide included bigger class sizes in urban areas, more issues with working conditions and higher cost of living. But on the flip side, one teacher suggested those in rural areas may also be more worried about the potential of a strike.

Uncertainty, anger weigh on teachers as they decide how to vote

Teachers appear to be weighing the risks of walking into the unknown with a ‘no’ vote against the sense that if they vote ‘yes,’ they are inviting the government to walk all over them.

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Another said teachers were feeling “uncertain” about their future, but he said there are also teachers who are “angry.”

Most referenced last year’s wage legislation when talking about what they feel was an unfair bargaining process. Premier Stephen McNeil has repeatedly said he won’t allow negotiations to go to arbitration.

“I’ve made it very clear, no third party, unelected body will make a decision for this government’s ability to finance,” McNeil said on Thursday. “No arbitrator, no third party will determine what a collective agreement will be in this province.”

One teacher said he’s worried about the message the union will send if the deal is ratified.

“It worries me what’s coming next time,” he said. “Will they start trying to reduce our pensions next time?”

Still others said they were worried about the impact on other unions if the teachers vote ‘yes.’ Doucet addressed that sentiment in her letter, saying the NSTU isn’t “tying the hands” of other unions, rather she said the government is.

Let down by union on long service award

Opinion on Doucet’s role in bringing the tentative agreement to the membership was divided among the teachers who spoke to Global News. Some accused her of flip-flopping because of promises they say she made when she campaigned for the position but others said it was right for the membership to have the final word on the agreement.

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READ MORE: Teachers ‘want a strong voice’: Liette Doucet set to take helm of union

A number of teachers said Doucet promised not to relinquish the long service award when she campaigned for president earlier this year, and were baffled by her about-face on the award.

“People were expecting to take it on the chin on salary but to keep the long service award,” one teacher said.

Teachers are not guaranteed a pension that is indexed to cost of living increases, he said, which makes the long service award even more valuable to teachers.

According to the Nova Scotia Pension Services Corporation, teachers who retire after August 1, 2006 are subject to variable pensions, meaning they will only get a cost of living increase if the pension is fully funded. Last year’s annual report shows the pension is funded to 76.7 per cent.

Meantime pensions for MLAs and civil servants are indexed to cost of living increases.

In her letter to members, Doucet said she is “personally devastated” that the union wasn’t able to protect the long service award. She ends the letters saying she knows she has “disappointed” her supporters, but stands by her decision to support the tentative agreement and recommends a ‘yes’ vote.

Two teachers said it was the right move to allow members to vote. One said he didn’t “begrudge” the union executive for the decision they made, and another said it made the process more democratic.

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However, another teacher said her decision is the “opposite” of what Doucet campaigned on, and the offer shouldn’t have gone to members.

But in a nod to how difficult members think Doucet’s decision was, a teacher who didn’t agree with her ‘yes’ vote still says he understands why she did it, admitting it’s not a decision she could have taken lightly.

“Nobody knows better than Liette the price attached to her ‘yes’ — it’s very, very divisive, there’s no ifs, ands, or buts about it,” he said.

Teachers will vote on the agreement on Tuesday. Last year 94 per cent of teachers voted on the agreement with 61 per cent of them rejecting it.

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