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Community College strike tentatively averted

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.

I'm just pasting below some background info I used for my recent radio show on this subject. I have a bunch of analysis to add afterwards, but that will have to wait for later...


Nova Scotia Community College, which has nearly 26,000 full-time and part-time students was on the verge of a strike of teachers and support staff – supported by 90% of the membership – as of this morning, but a tentative agreement has been reached between the NSTU and NSCC.

It now needs to be voted on by the membership. For the record, the strike vote took place on by electronic balloting held across the province on Sept. 22nd. 91 per cent of faculty members voted 93 per cent in favour of a walkout. Approximately 96 per cent of support workers voted 90 per cent in favour of joining job action

What was on the bargaining table? ... The 900 instructors and support staff at the 13 NSCC campuses in Nova Scotia had their bargaining agent, the NSTU, negotiating for the same 2.9 per cent raise that public school teachers received in April, in addition to increased health benefits. The teachers and support staff have been without a contract since August of 2008.

"This is an issue of fairness and equity," has been the statement for weeks now from Alexis Allen, president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union.

On October 16th of this year, Ms. Allen stated explained that the 900 college faculty and staff are being used to set an example for other bargaining units that face upcoming contract talks with the province. She noted this would the first time in the history of the NSTU that its members went on strike, and said the union has been fair throughout the 16-month bargaining process, including setting a strike date early and calling for arbitration. She said legislation governing civil service bargaining allows an arbitrator to take the province’s fiscal concerns into account. The offer the province put on the table was to open enough funding for a one per cent raise.
Allen said the union has been willing to return to the negotiating table, but the province hasn’t put any additional funds into the pot, and the membership already voted not to accept what was offered.
The union says it would cost $1.5 million to meet its wage demands.

The possibility of going to binding arbitration -- bringing in a 3rd party negotiator and both parties accept the results – has been raised, but Deputy Premier Frank Corbett said it’s not a consideration for the province as the NSTU is currently proposing it — without a caveat that the province’s ability to pay must be a factor.

Michael Hobeck, who teaches business at the college’s waterfront campus in Dartmouth, said the province is negotiating in bad faith. He said the union’s offer of binding arbitration, which the Dexter government hasn’t been keen on, is a reasonable way to ensure students aren’t disrupted.

Back to Mr. Corbett, he said: “As the premier has been saying to everybody, it’s about the provincial finances, we’re not going to leave this open to the opinion of a third party — we know what our finances are, most people realize the finances, apparently the leadership around NSTU doesn’t, but we hope that they would see that and come to the table and negotiate with the perspective of what the province’s ability to pay really is,” he said. Mr. Corbett said the province couldn't afford more than a one per cent raise because of its $592-million deficit.

It's important to point out that Mr. Corbett chose not to mention that the province also has a $50 million pot of money set aside for public sector pay increases. So, there is money in existence, but it wasn't put on the table. That was a choice.

Last Thursday, faculty at Cape Breton University ratified a four-year contract that will see them receive annual wage increases of 2.9 per cent. While she said she was pleased for CBU faculty, Allen also called the development a “slap in the face,” for members of her union. “College and universities, they get their funding from the same source,” she said. “I think it’s a double-standard, I think they’re using us as a pawn.”

UPDATE - the vote on the tentative agreement will happen on Friday October 23rd, between 6am and 8pm.

Here's some comments ...

It is fair to say that the Provincial government is trying to set a tone with the way they deal with the NSCC workers. They know everyone is watching. There are many public sector workers in Nova Scotia whose contracts are up this year (I've been hearing somewhere around 14). Thus, there is the prospect of many strikes.

That is why the President of the Teachers' Union, Alexis Allen, said that the Community College teachers and support staff are being used as pawns. The Community College workers' contract is the first opportunity to see the NDP government's stance towards labour.

The NDP's approach is not all that different than the Conservative or Liberal approaches to dealing with workers. They each just have different brands of the same service. In all cases, the service they are providing is to take care of "the economy".

What the hell does that mean anyway? Workers are part of the economy, aren't they?!

What they are all really talking about is taking care of the largest investors in the economy. All the major political parties share the ideology of capitalism, so their rather rude stances towards workers should come as no shock. There is no real logic to expecting that the NDP will actually meaningfully increase wages to more closely match the increased costs of living. They will hold their allegiances to the top investors and do what they can to ensure that wages remain "competitive" (low).

The fallacy in the government's arguments against wage increases can be seen in their talk about provincial finances.

The government has carried on with the same baloney about how "there's no money ... there's a deficit ", yet there is a pot of over $54 million for increasing wages in the public sector that is set aside. Obviously, the first thought that must come to mind is "So who is that money being saved for?" People can speculate on this all day. It is most likely that the government will try and ensure they have enough sitting around for a more politically opportune time, so they can create the perception of their support for the public sector at a time when they need votes. Or perhaps the money will be moved to another budget line. Who knows? And really, that's all just a distraction.

What's more important to take note of is the actual challenges that NSCC workers and all workers are facing right now.

This has to do with workers' a lack of any significant power or leverage to actually change things because of the fragmented landscape of labour organizing.

NSCC workers going on strike alone is like a little life raft going out into stormy waters. The fact that there are so many public sector workers that are in a position where they may need to at least threaten to strike within this year means that there are actually the conditions for something much larger and meaningful to happen.

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Strike avoided, agreement ratified, setback for other workers

The vote came through yesterday. It was a concession on the part of the workers, through the union. Of course, they were under a lot of pressure from students and not really helped out by the mainstream media coverage, which generally created the perception that a strike would have been selfish.

The move fits the normal course of things of late. Strikes are getting much rarer, and prgressively more difficult. A culture of resistance and class solidarity is weakening

Unfortunately, the result ends up giving the government and community college a victory, in terms of demonstrating who is in control.

Even through a strike would have been difficult and caused a lot of tension with students, avoiding a strike will only make it more difficult for the next group of workers who threaten a strike. The psychological effect of the avoided strike upon the general population will be that a strike is a very radical act and should be avoided. If strikes are continually avoided, such a perception will be obviously be created.

Corporate media coverage emphasizes this perception. 

Here are the comments of the NSCC president, Joan McArthur-Blair (post ratification coverage on the Canadian Newswire): 

"I am pleased that our dedicated and talented colleagues have ratified this new agreement. Their focus on student learning during the final stages of a complex and stressful negotiation process is proof of their professionalism, talent and commitment to improving lives through education."

The summary is that the workers made the ethically correct decision.

A few days earlier, when the tenative agreement was reached, there was a tonne of media coverage about how relieved everyone was (rexample, Chronicle Herald October 20th): "Staff and 25,000 students at Nova Scotia’s 13 community colleges breathed a sigh of relief Monday as a looming strike was averted."

Whew! Glad everyone came to their senses!

The larger tapestry that is created by all these little stories and quotes is that things turned out well; students and staff are satisfied that society just carries on as normal and that no one was inconvenienced. Things are working.

But if things keep working this way, where does that lead us? We end up in positions where the power of workers is further weakened. We're stuck, more and more so, just accepting the will of the owners and administrators because there seems like little other choice. That's a rather demoralizing situation.


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