A national historic site of Canada, the House made some modern-day history recently. The majority Liberal government, frustrated with the decision of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union members to vote down three tentative collective agreements reached between the union and government, introduced legislation to impose a contract on the province’s 9,300 public school educators. The government claimed that the teachers’ work-to-rule directives launched in early December were both disruptive and harmful to students and their families. The government had the House sit day and night in an effort to push the bill through quickly.
The result was a long emergency session in the House and well-attended, loud and boisterous rallies by teachers and their supporters outside the House. The efforts of government to get the bill passed before the Heritage Day long weekend in February came up short, allowing teachers to stage a one-day strike on the Friday preceding the long weekend, the first strike in the union’s 122-year history.
Teachers continually argued that the rejected tentative agreements and the imposed contract do very little to remedy a near-crisis situation in the province’s classrooms. Unworkable class sizes, a lack of firm disciplinary policies, too much paperwork and data collection and an unspoken no-fail policy leave teachers in an impossible situation, the union argued.
The government countered that it was providing extra money to ensure that classroom conditions would be improved.
Since December, teachers had been following work-to-rule directives that had them arrive at school 20 minutes before the first bell and leave 20 minutes after the last class ended. Services that supported extra-curricular activities from breakfast programs to lunch monitoring, coaching and concerts were all withdrawn.
The province’s teachers now have a choice to make. Even though they can no longer continue a collective work-to-rule job action, individual teachers cannot be contractually obligated to volunteer time as they had in the past.
As the drama played out in and around Province House, nearby Catholic churches were preparing for weekend Masses that featured a Gospel reading from Matthew that had Jesus telling His disciples to abandon the eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth principle that was popular in the day.
“If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them also the second mile.”
The teachers’ union is committed to suing the government, claiming the legislation is unconstitutional. But individual teachers will have to decide if the strike on the right cheek by government can convince them not to go the second mile for students with volunteer and extra-help time.
“I can tell you that things will not go back to normal, that they’ll never go back to normal,” union president Liette Doucet said the day the bill passed third reading.
“Teachers will be very careful about how they are using their time, very careful to protect their personal time, to protect what they’ve rediscovered — their health, their family life and their work-life balance. They will obviously be doing some volunteering because those are the things that they love to do with their students, but I believe that they will be more careful in choosing where they want to spend their time.”
The predictable reaction from teachers would be to spite government by basically extending individual work-to-rule directives. That is contrary to the advice given the apostles, divine advice that it might be difficult for apostles, teachers and many others to follow.
Still, that advice is older, stronger and more enduring than even the venerable Province House.
(Campbell is a writer in Halifax, N.S.)