Apr 302014

Presentation by John Hutton to the Nova Scotia Law Amendments Committee on what the 2014 Financial Measures Acts means to students. John is a member of Solidarity Halifax.

Originally published at the Halifax Media Coop.

Hello, and thank you to the honourable members for allowing me to speak here today. My name is John Hutton, I’m 24 years old from Halifax, and a student taking economics and international development at Dalhousie. I also sit on Dalhousie university’s board of governors, and the budget advisory committee of Dalhousie.

The budget makes a much more substantial cut in funding allocated for students and graduates than anything it adds. Overall, students will fall behind yet again as a result of this budget as currently proposed. The budget will invest 3.1 million into existing programs, $6.8 million for new programs, and then cut $49 million for a net loss of 39.1 million in programs. It is unfortunate that this money is being cut rather than re-invested, given the urgency for the province to invest in youth retention and success. Further, it will provide for a one percent increase in operating funds for universities. This is positive compared to the cuts of the previous government, but not enough to even cover the growth in costs. Sitting on Dal’s budget advisory committee, we had to make tough decisions to balance our budget this year, and cut academics. As a result, students will be taking on more debt in order to fund an education of lower quality. We need to reverse this and we need the government to take this seriously. The Liberal party platform put it very well when it stated, “Education isn’t a line item in a budget, it’s our future.”

As a positive step, this budget will eliminate interest on the provincial portion of student loans,investing $1.6 million. This is welcome for students, who will see savings of approximately $800 over the course of their loan. It’s also a progressive move, because it has some equalizing effect: low income people would presumably take longer to pay for their loan, and with interest payments accumulating it means that lower-income people would actually pay more for the same education as somebody who can pay off their loan quickly, or not need a loan at all. I do offer some advice moving forward, however. First, the savings from this policy will be fast eroded by tuition fee increases. This year, fees at dal went up by at least 3%, with an additional 3% increase in the international student differential fee, an additional 2% for medicine students and 6% for dentistry students. A student taking 5 classes ina bachelor of arts will pay an extra $197 from the fee hike, and arts is the cheapest program. Multiply that by four years for the length of their degree, and you’ve completely eroded all of the savings. But if tuition fees keep rising, any progress will be lost. The fact of the matter is that interest is not the root cause of student debt, tuition fees are. If you wish to preserve the benefits of this policy, it will be necessary to invest and address the principal in addition to the interest.

Further touching upon the elimination of interest. Having negotiated tuition fee increases with university administrators before, I strongly believe that this will be cited in order to justify fee increases. Indeed, Frank McKenna, a former New Brunswick premier, was speaking at St.F.X. In late March where he argued that tuition fee increases should be deregulated. “Caps on tuition are unnecessary. The market will decide. What you need to do is make sure equity and accessibility is preserved by having a generous loan and bursary and scholarship program.” You’re hearing it from me now: interest-free loans do not justify tuition fee hikes.

The budget provides tuition relief to medical students, worth $750,000. Tuition support is welcome, of course, but I worry that this may be more cosmetic. Tuition fees for medicine students is not regulated, something which advanced education minister Kelly Regan was critical of when in opposition. This year at Dalhousie, it was decided that new medical students would pay an additional 5% in fees each year for four years. The reason Dalhousie chose to do this is to have their fees in the top ofthe third quartile of fees, compared to other medical schools, very little of the conversation at the budget advisory committee was about the actual financial needs of the school. So two actions which I suggest in order to support this policy is to regulate tuition fees for medical students, and of course invest in overall reductions in tuition fees. The Canadian Medical association has some interesting insights into the benefits of low medical school tuition which are well worth looking into, and I can share it with the committee if so requested.

Another signature program introduced in the budget I want to touch on is the proposed Graduate to Opportunities grant, worth $1.6 million. My understanding is that it will be a grant to businesses to hire recent graduates, to be designed by the Economic, Rural Development and Tourism department. My understanding of government communications is that this is meant to be the replacement for the Graduate Retention Rebate. While I’d like to somewhat reserve my judgement until I see the policy in action, I must express my skepticism that it will make much of a difference. I am concerned because I can easily imagine businesses that already hire recent grads from using the program, or worse, businesses laying off employees only to re-hire them using grant funds. Unless the program is well regulated and monitored I think there’s a lot of risk. We’ve seen how the temporary foreign workers program has been abused, and when employers have a chance to lower their labour costs they can get creative- and not in a good way. It’s also worth remembering the headline from the Liberal party’s education section of the platform: “Whereas the NDP Government charges students on their loans and gives blank cheques to corporations, a Liberal government recognizes our post-secondary graduates are the key to Nova Scotia’s success.” With all due respect, this budget is cutting a $50 million program for graduates, then giving some of that money to businesses. The program can create roughly 77 full-time jobs at minimum wage, which isn’t that big of an impact. I would suggest that the program be reconsidered.

Now for the biggest piece of the budget for students and graduates: cutting the Graduate Retention Rebate, saving an estimated $49 million. Compared to the savings for graduates by not paying $800 in interest, the loss of up to fifteen thousand in savings is staggering. No doubt, many will lose out significantly as a result of this being cut. Under the previous government, promotion of the rebate was being improved and it is feasible that more students were planning their futures, even in the short term, with the rebate in mind. That said, the program was not as effective as the previous government had hoped. While admittedly the data on whether the rebate worked or not at retention is not strong- some argue that it had no tangible effect and others argue that it mitigated deeper losses, I tend to believe that it was not effective. The main reason is that you had to actually earn enough in the years immediately following graduation to actually qualify for the rebate, and as a result it was older graduates collecting the credit in much higher numbers- not the target demographic at all. More importantly, it is a focus on back-end support for students, rather than front-end support. It is much more effective for the government to be supporting students while they’re actually in their classes than afterwards. The student movement has been consistent on this point: our organizations were critical when the progressive conservatives implemented the graduate tax credit, and still so when the NDP expanded it into the graduate retention tax rebate. The Liberal party agreed with us on this point. What we’ve been calling for is that the funds from the rebate be redirected into up-front, needs-based grants. Not only would these funds have a greater impact by supporting students when they’re actually taking classes and can’t (or at least shouldn’t) work full-time, but it’s enough money to convert one hundred percent of Nova Scotian student loans into grants. Think of that: one hundred percent grants without taking on new spending. Newfoundland and Labrador just made that change in their provincial budget this year, a province that has seen a strong growth in enrolment from Nova Scotian students over the last decade and a half as they’ve invested in students. Converting NS student loans into grants using the rebate’s funds will make a significant reduction in student debt for Nova Scotian students. A student receiving the maximum allowance would see their debt be reduced to$20,000 for a full degree, while it is currently more than $35,000 on average. This is exciting for government too: $20,000 is well below the value set by the provincial debt cap program of $28,500. If students aren’t reaching the debt cap’s level, the government saves money. It’s estimated that you’d save a further $8.1 million by doing this. Students win, government wins. It’s the right course of action.

The scenario that I’m pitching here was actually calculated using estimates of the rebate’s value from previous budgets, where the rebate was costed out at roughly $20 million. Knowing that it was nearly $50 million this year only increases the potential for your government to make a real impact. A $30 million investment would reduce tuition fees by ten percent, reversing the hikes implemented under the previous government and saving students money. It would show that Nova Scotia supports its young people and is willing to take bold action to do it. The Ivany Report makes it clear that action is needed now to support youth retention, and I plead with you to listen to the voices of young people on this. We know what our challenges are and you have the ability to support us.

I am upset that the budget you’ve brought forward will make such a large cut to students and graduates, but thankfully there’s such a place as law amendments. You have the chance to bring Newfoundland’s success to Nova Scotia, support youth and reduce student debt. To do this, I urge the committee to amend the budget so that $20 million of the funds from the Graduate Retention Tax Rebate be re-allocated to make one hundred percent of Nova Scotia Student Loans into needs-based grants, and invest the remaining $30 million in increasing the university operating grant so that tuition fees can be reduced by ten percent next year. Education isn’t a line item in a budget, it’s our future. Take the opportunity given to you today and support this province’s young people.

Thank you.


Note: Statements and articles by Solidarity Halifax members do not necessarily reflect positions held by the organization.

Apr 232014

Solidarity Halifax is a proud sponsor of the 2014 MayworksHalifax Festival. See the festival’s press release below (features quotes from Solidarity Halifax members Sébastien Labelle and Kyle Buott) and make sure to check out the full calendar of events at mayworkshalifax.ca

Artists and labour activists join forces in another edition of the expanding MayworksHalifax Festival. Now in its fifth iteration the multi-disciplinary arts festival boasts a line-up of events featuring works of theatre, cinema, writing, printmaking and photography.

“Continuing to build onto the success of past years, our fifth festival will feature its most ambitious and diverse program of events yet,” says Sébastien Labelle, who is Vice-President for Culture & Mayworks at the Halifax-Dartmouth & District Labour Council.

The MayworksHalifax Festival is a project of the regional Labour Council, representing over 25,000 workers across the city. Through the festival, the Labour Council and sponsoring unions share their values and mission to the general public.

“All too often, unions are misrepresented in the media, creating confusion about their purpose. The festival allows us to demystify unions and celebrate through art what we’re really about: social justice, democracy, equity and collective empowerment – not only in the workplace, but throughout our communities”, says Labelle.

Kyle Buott, President of the Halifax-Dartmouth & District Labour Council ads “Mayworks is about bringing workers and artist together to use art to explore economic, social and environmental justice. The labour movement is the largest democratic movement in the country, uniting 3.5 million members, this is one way to help tell people’s stories.”

MayworksHalifax contributes to building a culture and society that celebrates and recognizes the history and struggle of the working people of Nova Scotia. The annual festival spans a period of time before and after May 1st of every year, the International Worker’s Day, and serves as an extended celebration of the day’s significance to all workers and those seeking justice.

The festival also offers artists and workers the opportunity to recognize their common struggle for fair wages, healthy working conditions and a vibrant, relevant culture that reflects their lives. Artists featured in the festival are invited to produce works of art that reflect the interests of workers, equity-seeking groups and people in poverty. Works of this nature often have difficulty finding venues and support, so the festival provides a vehicle for artists to address political issues that matter to them or communities they are part of.

The 2014 festival opens with a ceremony marking a tremendous growth of activism toward the recognition of treaties betweenIndigenous peoples and colonial governments. This will be followed by works that engages audiences and patrons around issues of workplace safety, transphobia, African Nova Scotian struggles against racism, the experiences of sex workers, andstate repression among other topics.

“This will surely be our biggest year yet”, exclaims Buott. “There is something for everyone at MayworksHalifax.”

The 2014 festival will take place from April 23rd to May 2nd, is open to the general public, and will spread over multiple venues across Halifax.

See program of events below. Details available at mayworkshalifax.ca


Opening Ceremony – Art & Indigenous Resistance
April 23, 6:
00PM – 8:30PM
Dalhousie Arts Centre – 6101 University Ave
Free admission

In recognition of the Peace and Friendship Treaties that bind us together in the Atlantic region, the 2014 festival opens with traditional Mi’kmaw ceremonies offered by elder Billy Lewis and the All Nations Drummers. The Ceremony will take place inside the Dalhousie Art Gallery, currently hosting “Beat Nation: Art, Hip Hop & Aboriginal Culture”. The ceremonies will be followed by a screening of “Seeking Netukulimk,” a short documentary film by Martha Stiegman and Kerry Prosper. The evening will then culminate with a panel discussion featuring Ursula A. JohnsonSherry Pictou and Kerry Prosper.


A Society of Law
Us vs Them Theatre Cooperative
April 24 – 27, 8:00PM
The Bus Stop Theatre – 2203 Gottingen St
$10 admission

A new play by Pasha Ebrahimi and 2014 Mayor’s Award for Emerging Artist recipient Evan Wade Brown. A Society of Law will introduce audiences to two desperate, disparate men who are forced to negotiate their highest ideals and darkest hypocrisies. The story is set against the backdrop of Canadian class and gender politics, contemporary protests, the Haymarket Massacre and the Iranian Revolution.


A Show of Force
Art + Activism @ NSCAD
April 25 – May 13
Plan B Merchants Coop – 2180 Gottingen St
Free admission

A concurrent exhibition of print portfolios relating to labour and social justice in Halifax, NS, and abroad. The exhibition includes a local exchange portfolio created during a social justice/art making public workshop at NSCAD University alongside curated selections from the Justseeds Artists’ Cooperative archives.


The Politics of Creativity
A booklaunch by Max Haiven and Fernwood Publishing
April 26, 6:00PM – 7:00PM

The Bus Stop Theatre – 2203 Gottingen St
Free admission

Max Haiven invites us to consider the politics of creativity and the limits imposed on it within the constraints of our economic system. In this stirring call to arms, Haiven argues that capitalism has colonized how we all imagine and express what is valuable. The event serves as a booklaunch for Haiven’s book “Crises of Imagination, Crises of Power: Capitalism, Creativity and the Commons.”


Aftermath: The Conequences of a Workplace Injury
Documentary Photography By Trevor Beckerson
Presented with The Office of the Worker Counsellor

April 28
Location TBA

In commemoration of the National Day of Mourning, when workers mourn and protest people harmed or killed on the job, The Office of the Worker Counsellor present a photographic documentary exhibition in which the work of photographer Trevor Beckerson opens the shutter on the people of the tragedies of workplace injury.


Cafe DaPoPo
DaPoPo Theatre
April 28, 7:30PM – 10:00PM

Bearly’s House of Blues and Ribs – 1269 Barrington St
$5 admission

Once again, DaPoPo Theatre returns with its unique blend of ordered chaos with what is now a Mayworks staple hit – the Cafe DaPoPo! Order to your taste, and experience songs, monologues, scenes and other pieces of performance art right at your table at this popular theatrical event.


Reel Justice
Co-curated with the Atlantic Filmmakers Cooperative
April 29, 7:30PM – 9:00PM

AFCOOP – 5663 Cornwallis St. Suite #101
Admission by Donation to The Burnley “Rocky” Jones Education Fund

Our movie screens are colonized by Hollywood and its big business interests. “Reel Justice” responds with a collection of short films you won’t see at the multiplex. Films include “Encounter at Kwacha House” to pay tribute to the late Rocky Jones, “Making It” (Sobaz Benjamin), “Waters of the Diaspora: The Passage” (Sylvia D. Hamilton), “Reeny” (Fateh Ahmed), “Scarlines” (Stephanie Young), Don’t Dictate! NEGOTIATE! (Liz McDougall), and more!

Talk Sexxxy: the not so sexy journal of a phone sex operator
April 30 – May 2, 8:00PM
The Bus Stop Theatre – 2203 Gottingen St

$10 admission

Written by 2012 Mayor’s Award for Emerging Artist recipient Lee-Anne Poole and performed by 2013 Mayor’s Award for Emerging Artist Stephanie MacDonald. Talk Sexxxy looks at the perverse and private fantasy lives of the phone sex industry. Listening in on these private and anonymous calls for a company that proclaims, “No Taboos, Hardcore Phone Sex!” through the ears of a new phone sex operator and a regular caller.

Visit mayworkshalifax.ca for ticket and details.

MayworksHalifax is a project of the Halifax-Dartmouth & District Labour Council, representing over 25,000 workers in all sectors of the economy within the Halifax Regional Municipality.

Apr 222014

High school teacher and Solidarity Halifax member Ben Sichel examines the role of unions and strikes in our public services and communities. Originally published an no need to raise your hand.


Led by the Portland Student Union, about 400 people rallied at a Portland Public School Board meeting in support of their teachers in January. (photo: oregonlive.com - http://www.oregonlive.com/portland/index.ssf/2014/01/portland_students_and_teachers.html)

Led by the Portland Student Union, about 400 people rallied at a Portland Public School Board meeting in support of their teachers in January. (photo: oregonlive.com – http://www.oregonlive.com/portland/index.ssf/2014/01/portland_students_and_teachers.html)

The provincial budget was tabled in Nova Scotia earlier this month, with education funding being increased by $18.6 million.

I won’t crunch the numbers here to analyze what they really mean. (e.g. to what extent do they compensate for cuts to the P-12 education budget in recent years? And what year would we use as a benchmark, anyway? 2010? 2001?)

For the moment, teachers seem pleased by the budget announcement (despite the fact that Liberal government had promised $65 million in additional funding for education in the first year of its mandate, not over four years as the budget announcement now says).

In any case, though, it’s hard to be too happy about education funding right now: the day before the budget was announced, the government rammed through Bill 37, the law which effectively removed the right to strike from nearly 40,000 public-sector workers in Nova Scotia.

The government of course claims the legislation was necessary to protect patient safety. But of course, health-care professionals have succeeded in negotiating essential service agreements in the past when labour-management negotiations hit difficult spots. And, the nurses’ main demand in their contract negotiations, lower nurse-to-patient ratios, was precisely about keeping patients safe and well cared for in the long term.

At the law amendments committee hearings on the bill, and on the street outside the legislature at demonstrations, nurse after nurse came forward with personal stories about unsafe workloads.

But this issue has now essentially been ignored, and remains unresolved for both nurses and patients.

Strikes are by nature disruptive. They are also heart-wrenching for those involved. In the public sector, striking of course means withdrawing public, often free services from those who rely on them. Workers know this, and are most often deeply conflicted about not serving the public.

But removing the right to strike doesn’t mean ensuring good public services. On the contrary, it means that employers, who tend to have a good idea of when anti-strike legislation is coming, have no incentive to negotiate in good faith. Why bother, if they know government will step in and take away any power workers have?

(As well, research shows that banning strikes in health care doesn’t seem to make them less likely, as workers will strike illegally if the stakes are high enough.)

All this can be instructive to another highly unionized, predominantly female group of public-sector workers: teachers.

While there’s no reason to think teachers in Nova Scotia will face something like Bill 37 in the next year or two – Stephen McNeil’s government was elected partly by cozying up to parents and teachers – we would be wise to take note of some important happenings in other jurisdictions.

First, British Columbia. Back in January, the Supreme Court of that province ruled that two of the Liberal government’s laws pertaining to education were unconstitutional.

The first law, passed in 2002, took away the B.C. Teachers’ Federation’s (BCTF) right to negotiate class size and class composition (i.e. the number of students with special needs in one classroom) in its collective agreement.

The BCTF took the government to court, and following 10 years of legal battles the B.C. court ruled that this was a violation of the right to collective bargaining – negotiating is meaningless if you can’t talk about one of your most important working conditions.

The government was given one year to change the law. But instead, the Liberals in 2012 passed a law that was virtually identical to the first law. The BCTF sighed and challenged the law again, and the court predictably sided with the teachers again and ordered the government pay $2 million in damages to the union.

Significantly, though, Justice Susan Griffin also condemned the BC government’s strategy throughout the dispute. According to Griffin, the government had no intention of ever respecting the right to collective bargaining. Rather, it intended to “provoke a strike,” gambling that public opinion would turn against the teachers, which would then allow the government to legislate them back to work under the conditions it wanted in the first place. (You can read more about the case here.)

This is of course a blatant violation of the spirit of good-faith bargaining. To their credit, the teachers didn’t take the bait, opting for various tactics besides a strike in order to put pressure on the government. Only this week, 12 years after the original legislation passed, has the BCTF voted to begin moving toward strike action.

And depending on how the situation progresses, we might get an idea of how well the government’s strategy of provoking a strike would have worked. Will the general public support striking BC teachers?

In public-sector labour-management disputes, support from the general public is crucial both for unions and employers. And while most governments say they support collective bargaining and the right to strike in principle, they also pay close attention to popular opinion. Here in Nova Scotia the Liberals commissioned an opinion poll on banning health care strikes in 2013, and while the results were not made public it’s fair to assume they guided the government in its decision to pass the recent anti-strike bill.

What does it say about public opinion of unions in Canada today that the B.C. government could negotiate in such bad faith with 41,000 workers, and even defy the law, for so many years, and yet continue to hold a reasonable level of public support? In BC class sizes have skyrocketed, and the number of classes with four or more children with special needs has nearly doubled to more than 16,000 since 2012 – a precipitous decline in working conditions for teachers and learning conditions for students.

Yet the teachers’ federation, sensitive to public opinion, has still had to tread extremely carefully in its plans to withdraw its labour in order to improve the situation.

What are teachers to do when governments or school boards hold all the cards and refuse to negotiate, while our class sizes swell and student needs multiply?

Living in the Age of Austerity, when there’s never enough money for anything we value as a society (even though we live in the wealthiest time in the history of the world), some teachers are discovering that an active, engaged union is the key to saving public education.

In Portland, Oregon earlier this year, the 2,900-member Portland Association of Teachers narrowly averted a strike by negotiating a last-minute contract that was relatively popular with its members and the public. A few hours south in the smaller community of Medford, 600 teachers struck for 16 days and won concessions from the school district.

The secret of their success? Make demands about working conditions, which directly affect student learning, central to your negotiating strategy. Portland teachers notably won 150 new teacher hires in order to reduce class sizes, and Medford teachers won provisions which allow for adequate preparation time and attention to students with special needs.

In a similar case, in St. Paul, Minnesota, teachers won smaller classes in high-poverty schools, the expansion of the city’s pre-kindergarten program, and a 25 per cent reduction in time spent on standardized testing and test preparation, so more time could be put toward more authentic learning activities.

“Making conditions in schools, not just wages and benefits, central to collective bargaining is popular with the public,” writes Sarah Jaffe in In These Times magazine. (Nova Scotia nurses took this lesson to heart, making patient safety the central issue of their recent dispute with the government.)

Other American cities have also seen rises in teacher union involvement and action among rank-and-file members as a response to the widespread corporate-driven “education reform” agenda. In Seattle, high school teacher Jesse Hagopian, one of the leaders of a boycott of standardized tests at Garfield High School, is running for president of the Seattle Education Association.  In Los Angeles, a slate of activist teachers called Union Power swept all 24 seats it ran for in that city’s teacher union elections in March.

And of course, the Chicago Teachers’ Union waged a historic strike in the summer of 2012 where teachers worked closely with parents and students and earned the support of a majority of those with an opinion, despite a well-funded media campaign against them.

Our union structures have always been democratic. Teachers elect the leaders they want to represent them, and they can participate in setting policies and priorities.

Like all democracies, though, they’re imperfect. In the same way that ever-greater numbers of Canadians feel detached and disillusioned from the general electoral process, as evidenced by a steady decline in voter turnout,  many teachers do not feel particularly connected to their unions. (There are many reasons for this, and I highly recommend Lois Weiner’s The Future of Our Schools if you want to dive into them.)

I’ve often heard teachers talk about “the union” as something external to themselves. In fact, teachers should realize that we are the union.  With no end to budget cuts and market-based “logic” in education in sight, it’ll be up to us to learn from the successful examples we see from our colleagues across the continent, and come up with a plan.


Note: Articles published by Solidarity Halifax members do not necessarily reflect positions held by the organization.

Apr 152014

Solidarity Halifax member Sébastien Labelle writes to The Chronicle Herald to denouce the ever present racism in Nova Scotia.

Garnetta (Cromwell) Oakley’s bravery in taking on Leon’s Furniture to win her right to dignity and justice deserves celebration. No doubt.

But as a province, let’s not pat ourselves on the back just yet for justice served. This province has a very long way to go as Gerry Barton now has to fight after 44 years to win his victory over the crime committed by the criminal justice system — 25 years after the royal commission on the Marshall prosecution.

Racism in Nova Scotia seems relentless, requiring each new generation to battle again against this embedded injustice in our society. We can’t give up, and people of European descent must take up this fight, alongside Mr. Barton and Ms. Oakley, with all African Nova Scotians, Mi’kmaq and other racialized people in this province to say against racism, “Done, no more!”

Sebastien Labelle, Dartmouth

Demonstrators celebrate after the event.  Photo Robert Devet.

Photo: Robert Devet/HMC


Note: Articles published by Solidarity Halifax members do not necessarily reflect positions held by the organization.