Monday, December 20, 2004

Teachers should welcome new plan to reach contracts

VICTORIA - Teachers made a big mistake in immediately trashing a proposal for a new way of bargaining contracts.
I don't blame them for being mad at the way they've been treated by this government. And elements of the proposal are going to be tough for them to swallow.
But on balance commissioner Don Wright has come up with a plan that could fix what is a hopelessly broken bargaining process between the BC Teachers' Federation and the Public School Employers' Association.
Wright, a former deputy minister, was asked to look at the bargaining process by Labour Minister Graham Bruce.
He found a fundamental problem. Teachers bargain as if they have a right to strike. But they don't.
It's a destructive fiction. The threat of strike - or lockout - is part of normal collective bargaining. Both sides know from the beginning that disaster awaits if they can't reach a deal. As a result they're motivated to compromise and bargain and find solutions.
Teachers cling to the notion that they have the right to strike. But parents consider education an essential service and no one is prepared to see 650,000 students with nowhere to go. As a result any government - left, right or in-between - will quickly use legislation to send them back to work.
That's reality. And it works against a negotiated deal. If school districts think the government will ultimately side with them in an imposed settlement, they have no reason to compromise. If teachers think the government is on their side, they hang tough.
That's why there hasn't been a successfully negotiated deal in 12 years.
Wright proposes a system that would force good faith negotiations. The two sides would get a set time to bargain. If they weren't successful, a commissioner would be appointed to report publicly on each side's positions. That in itself should encourage reasonableness; neither side should want to look like the problem.
The process would continue with mediation, but if a deal wasn't reached both sides would have to submit final positions on all issues to the commissioner. He would pick one in its entirety to form the new contract.
That too is an incentive to a reasonable position. Get too extreme, and you lose everything. (The method, final offer selection, is probably best known as the solution in major league baseball salary disputes when player and team can't agree on a contract.)
Wright also attempts to address, less successfully, the other major concern of teachers.
They want bargaining to deal with issues like maximum class sizes and the number of support staff in schools. Those were included in the teachers' previous contract, but legislated out by the Liberal government, which argued that school districts need the freedom to decide how best to provide education with the funds available. The new law specifically bars negotiation of those types of issues.
It is a thorny problem. Teachers lost the right to negotiate critical elements of their working conditions. (And also lost rights that they had already bargained for, and the employer and government had accepted. Teachers gave up wage increases in return for class size limits, for example, and are right to feel cheated.)
Wright proposes a new system that would bring together teachers, school districts and the province outside the negotiating process "to seek agreement on cost effective approaches to improving working and learning conditions." It's a good attempt at compromise.
Teachers have legitimate grievances. This Liberals promised to honour contracts, then used legislation to gut the teachers' agreement. They have been confrontational and provocative, treating the BCTF as an enemy rather than a participant in improving results for students.
But whatever government is in power, the bargaining problems remain.
Wright has proposed a new, realistic model that offers a chance for more effective collective bargaining, with power balanced between teachers and school districts.
And that is in everyone's interests.
Footnote: Labour Minister Graham Bruce reserved comment on the report. But he'll have to address one major problem. The government has shown already that it won't honour arbitration decisions if it doesn't like the result. There's no reason for the BCTF to accept a binding process that is really only binding if the government wins.

No comments: