McNeil backs down

The template for rolling out the Glaze report showed every sign of a government determined to wrest control of education policy from the union that has dominated it for 50 years:

  • Release the report.
  • Announce its acceptance.
  • Call an early legislative session to ram it through.

Even the predictable union hullabaloo that followed felt oddly unthreatening. Premier Stephen McNeil had faced down the NSTU on bread-and-butter issues during the contract fight; surely he could hold firm on mere administrative reforms. It was damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead.

Then McNeil blinked.

And the winner is…

I have no idea what prompted the abrupt U-turn, but it’s hard to read Education Minister Zach Churchill’s announcement this morning as much short of surrender:

  • The union will keep principals and vice-principals in its ranks, albeit in a separate bargaining unit styled as “an association.” Principals will have no right to strike, but who cares about principals striking? The only meaningful threat is a teachers’ strike that shuts down schools.
  • Retaining school principals in the union keeps $800,000 per year in dues flowing into the NSTU’s bank account—a huge though unspoken concern for the union.
  • Instead of fewer members, the union will get more as the government promises 25-30 new teachers to replace principals and vice-principals refocused on management duties.
  • The government will abandoned plans for a self-regulatory college to ensure effective and accountable oversight of teacher performance. Instead, it will work with the NSTU “to develop teaching standards of excellence.” Whoop-de-do. Every profession from brain surgeons to estheticians has a self-regulatory governing body. For teachers, the same old fox will serve as hen house locksmith.
  • Keeping principals in the union will perpetuate the intermingling of union loyalties and management functions that has blocked meaningful education reform for decades.
  • And in case there remains any doubt about the union’s continued grip on education policy, Churchill meekly promises to work with the NSTU on such matters as “extracurricular activities, professional development, strategies for recruiting teachers, rural education, educational needs of new immigrants, French language education, students living in poverty, and children in care.” What’s left?
  • UPDATE: At her afternoon news conference, Doucet said the government had agreed to eliminate the proposed province-wide seniority list, a detail Churchill omitted from his morning briefing. Ludicrously, she claimed a province-wide list would “limit student choices.” Obviously a bigger list would increase choices, and limit opportunities for nepotism. Another union victory at the expense of students, and teacher quality.

A week ago, NSTU President Liette Doucet, whose term expires in three months, was wobbling her way toward defeat. Today, the NSTU is stronger than ever, and Doucet’s re-election chances have received a huge boost from the unlikeliest quarter.

As for notorious tough guy Stephen McNeil, it seems the gentleman was for turning.

What lesson will public sector unions take from the premier’s humiliating defeat on an issue he obviously cares about? Surely they will be tempted to ape the NSTU’s tactics of online bullying and job action threats.

Worst of all, it will be decades before any other government summons the courage to take on the NSTU.

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