On this week’s episode of Talking Radical Radio, Scott Neigh speaks with Drew Moore and Tina Roberts-Jeffers. Moore is a teacher in Nova Scotia. Roberts-Jeffers is a mother of three small children. They talk about the unprecedent activity and engagement by both teachers and parents over the last couple of years in the face of an austerity-minded provincial government and in defence of a strong public education system.
Across North America in the last few decades, it has been hard to find any governments in any jurisdictions that don’t fall somewhere on the spectrum between quietly undermining and fanatically attacking public services. When it is public education in particular that is in their sights, a popular government tactic has often been to target teachers and to sow divisions between teachers and parents. Some of the most important resistance, on the other hand, has been when teachers and parents have begun from a shared interest in an education system that is strong, well-funded, and public to build relationships, solidarity, and collaborative action.
Until quite recently, Nova Scotia has seen relative peace between its teachers and its provincial government — in fact, never in its history had the Nova Scotia Teachers Union engaged in any kind of province-wide job action. When the latest round of negotiations began for the teachers in mid 2015, though there were signs that the province had some rather ambitious goals in terms of containing spending, nobody among the teachers or the general public expected much to be different.
By the time the provincial government imposed a contract through legislation in late February 2017, however, everything had changed. The government’s actions and public statements throughout this period were much more negative and combative than they had ever been before. Much of what the government sought in bargaining, teachers identified as detrimental to their working conditions and to students’ learning conditions. According to Moore, as a result of all of this, his rank and file colleagues were much more engaged with the negotiating process than he had ever seen them. In particular, more and more of them were insistent that certain key workplace issues related to class sizes, to the pressure for teachers to do ever-increasing amounts of administrative work with no additional time to do it, and to other classroom-related concerns must be addressed. Teachers voted on three separate occasions to reject tentative agreements, and overwhelmingly passed a strike vote. Towards the end, the union engaged in a province-wide work-to-rule campaign that involved continuing to teach but withdrawing auxiliary services not explicitly required in their collective agreement.
And it wasn’t only teachers that were more engaged and politicized than ever before over the course of this process — so were parents. Tina Roberts-Jeffers has always been a firm believer in the importance of a strong public education system, though she also has her share of criticisms of the specific challenges and barriers that the system puts in the way of African Nova Scotian students. As the conflict between teachers and the government developed, she became increasingly convinced that the government’s actions would not only be detrimental to teachers but would harm students, and therefore communities. It was some time last year when she heard about a small meeting in which a handful of parents were getting together to figure out ways to express their support for the teachers, and she knew she had to get involved. Nova Scotia Parents for Teachers grew quickly, engaged in multiple public and media events, and developed a Facebook presence with more than 19,000 members.
The combined efforts of teachers, parents, and also students managed to mobilize some impressive expressions of public support for teachers during the period preceding the provincial government’s passage of legislation last month. This included what some have identified as the largest demonstration at Nova Scotia’s provincial legislature in history. Alas, this was not enough to stop the government from imposing a contract.
For the moment, the struggle to defend public education in Nova Scotia has entered a quieter phase. There are a lot of conversations going on in a lot of different contexts about the events of the past year and about how to move forward. Despite the recent set-back, many parents and teachers can identify some hopeful signs as well. Teachers and parents have a new track record of collaboration and new relationships that were built in the course of struggle. Moreover, the public conversation about education in the province has become more lively, enthusiastic, and informed, and includes plenty of voices calling for it to be well funded, equitable and accessible, and treated as a public good. It’s not clear what form this attention and energy might take in the new moment, but circumstances are ripe for solid organizing that is capable of building towards future gains.
Moore and Roberts-Jeffers speak with me about public education, about the recent struggles surrounding it in Nova Scotia, and about the importance of solidarity between teachers, parents, and students. We spoke by skype-to-phone from Nova Scotia.
Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada. We give you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out its website here. You can also follow us on FaceBook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join our weekly email update list.
Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.
The image modified for use in this post is in the public domain.