A for­mer Cape Bre­ton union pres­i­dent of­fers ad­vice to the NSTU.

Cape Breton Post - - FRONT PAGE - Stephen J.W. Drake

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.

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