A former Cape Breton union president offers advice to the NSTU.
This column is about our teachers and civil servants and their fight against the arbitrary stripping of collective bargaining rights by the current provincial government.
Full disclosure: My brother is a teacher so I have some skin in this game. I am also a former union leader with a professional interest in protecting collective bargaining rights that were hard won in this province by coal miners in the early 1900s. Those rights were entrusted to future generations and teachers, civil servants and their leaders are correct to stand up for those rights today.
A few whistle stops on the Cape Breton labour history train should hammer home the point.
The first whistle stop takes us to the 1920s when both of my grandfathers worked in the Cape Breton coal mines at a time when the coal company (BESCO) ran roughshod over the miners and their communities.
The company demanded massive wage reductions and forced overtime to prop up their crumbling financial house of cards. The underlying threat was that if the miners refused to cooperate the community would suffer unprecedented devastation due to mine closures. We hold all the cards, the miner’s will come crawling back to work, they can’t stand the gaff, the coal company boss said.
The company targeted the miners and their leaders. Starvation, deprivation and intimidation were the weapons of choice – think soldiers, machine guns and armed goons on horseback. Coal miners paid little attention and backed their leaders.
The biggest problem for the coal bosses was that the miners and their leaders were right. A public inquiry revealed financial skullduggery and the company was forced into bankruptcy. The provincial government was voted out of office in the next election. We still proudly celebrate the miner’s heroic efforts every year on Davis Day.
Take away Lesson: When the cause is right union members will support their leaders to hell and back.
The second whistle stop takes us to 1981 when my father and I worked in the Cape Breton coal mines at a time when the coal company (DEVCO) was spreading the word that outrageous contractual demands made by union leaders ignored the onerous fiscal realities facing the company. There was no money. For the first time in more than 30 years, coal miners exercised the right to strike.
Three separate conciliated/ arbitrated agreements were recommended by union leaders. The miners rejected all three. Calls for leaders to resign arose from the usual suspects including a bevy of washhouse lawyers. Miners paid little attention to the noisemakers and sent the negotiating team back to the table.
After nearly four months on the picket lines the miners accepted the fourth recommendation. Victory came in the form of a two-year agreement with massive wage increases. The company found the money.
I add this piece of history as an aide-mémoire for Nova Scotia Teachers; Union president Liette Doucet – keep up the good work, tuck in your chin and keep swinging. Collective bargaining is not a baseball game where you’re out after three strikes. Collective bargaining is like snooker. It’s about the long game not the short game.
Take away lesson: Collective bargaining is not over until the rank and file members say it’s over.
The third whistle stop takes us to 1993 when the federal Liberal government started schlepping the idea of restructuring the Cape Breton coal industry (code for abandonment).
They said there was no bag of money and no rabbits in a hat for the coal industry. For five years, the miners and their elected leaders stood in opposition to this “fake privatization” plan. The bosses zeroed in on the miners’ union leader (Full disclosure: I was that union leader). Get rid of your union president and all will be good they said.
“When the cause is right union members will support their leaders to hell and back.”
The coal company boss even sued me. Most miners paid little attention and I was acclaimed to a second term.
In what was pitched as a final offer, the company and government imported a so-called buyer from the United States to salvage 500 jobs. Take this deal immediately or risk losing the industry, the bosses commanded.
A coalition of four Devco unions demanded a contractual link between the 500 jobs and the existing collective agreements. The demand included a safety net of continuing pension credits for every miner hired in a restructured industry. In short, the Canadian Union leaders called the bosses bluff on the 500 “fake jobs.” It was a tough decision, but the right one in the circumstances.
Take away lesson: When faced with tough decisions, standing up for your brothers and sisters is always the right thing to do.
The final whistle stop takes us to early 2000 just after the federal government announced it was imposing their settlement package on Devco employees. No negotiations. No arbitration. Just bullying. The government ignored the collective bargaining process and forced a $111-million “restructuring” package on the employees. Take it or leave it. So, the miners took it.
Then the union leaders snookered the company and the government. Leaders from the four Devco unions advised the bosses that the forced package violated collective agreements, Devco’s founding legislation and the Canada Labour Code. Union leaders proceeded to kick the legal daylights out of the bosses. The ensuing legal battle resulted in three significant arbitration awards amounting to more than $150 million in additional benefits for employees. The min- ers were right. The government found the money.
Take away lesson: When you’re in a fight with a bully and you think you might have to kick him where it hurts to win just do it.
This brings me to the legislative hammer that is poised to force an “agreement” on our teachers. From experience I can say that an agreement by force is not an agreement – it is a signal that the party forcing the deal has a losing hand. That’s usually the right time to kick them where it hurts.
Three recent decisions from the Supreme Court of Canada support our teachers’ stance on collective bargaining. In a 2016 ruling, the Supreme Court held that legislation stripping away British Columbia teachers’ bargaining rights was unconstitutional. B.C. teachers are still doing the happy dance.
Nova Scotia teachers have big decisions to make. Legal challenges take time. If our teachers’ decide to take the bosses to school (or court) to teach them a lesson about the consequences of imposing a bad deal, they have the support of my family in spades.
I have closely watched this saga unfold since the first volley was fired by the provincial government. Not much has changed since the 1920s. Instead of soldiers and machine guns, the government is armed with television ads, social media and legislation to accomplish what they pretended to do at the collective bargaining table. Forcing a deal in the legislature is a distraction to misdirect public focus away from the government’s biggest problem - the teachers are right. I’m standing with the teachers.