Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Teachers' strike looking like part of students' fall

VICTORIA - There's going to be a nasty shock this fall for parents who thought electing a Liberal government meant no school strikes.
Barring big change the battle between the BC Teachers' Federation and the government will lead to some sort of strike or job action this fall.
The campaign rhetoric left some people thinking that school strikes had been banned by the Liberals.
Not so. The Campbell government did change the law in 2002 to make education an essential service. But that doesn't mean an end to strikes.
It simple ensures that before a strike or lockout the Labour Relations Board must set essential service levels, just as in a health care dispute. Lawyers for both sides will make creative arguments about what essential means when it comes to schools, and the board will set out ground rules.
Parents won't like the results. The board has to ensure people who rely on the services aren't unduly harmed. But it also is bound to promote collective bargaining, so it sets essential service levels low enough that strikes still mean pain and an incentive for negotiations. (In the last BC Ferries job action, service on some routes to the Island was cut in half under the approved plan.)
Schools won't be open five days a week. Several districts have already gone to four-day school weeks to save money. If the government considered that acceptable, it will have a tough time arguing five days are now essential.
Two or three-day weeks, half days, combined classes, cancelled optional subjects - expect some or all of those to be part of the approved plan.
None of which will please parents. The reality is that we rely on schools for child care as well as education. For working parents, finding substitute child care will be costly, inconvenient and sometimes impossible. Businesses will be hit with higher absenteeism, and too young children will be fending for themselves.
None of this will last long. The Liberals, like the NDP government, will bring in legislation to end the strike, and ultimately impose a contract.
But it will still be a big disruption, and one that will leave some voters feeling betrayed.
Unless the union and the government find a way put aside their mutual contempt and come up with a solution that puts students first. (The union officially bargains with the BC Public School Employers' Association, but the association doesn't have the ability to address the key issues.)
So far, neither side seems willing to take the needed steps. Instead, the union and the government are fighting over issues that should be swept away.
The Liberals are all fired up about politics in the classroom, fretting about a BC Appeal Court decision giving teachers a right to talk about issues like class size in parent-teacher interviews, if they are relevant to the child. The reality is that this a non-problem. How many parents have complained after their eight-minute chat with a teacher?
And the BCTF is suing Gordon Campbell for defamation for his campaign claim that the union and the NDP had a secret plan to engineer a school strike last spring. Campbell went too far, but the case should be settled with an apology.
Even with the distractions pushed aside, it will be tough to reach an agreement. The government says the teachers must accept 0 and 0 in the first two years of the new contract, citing the wage freeze imposed just after they signed their last contract, which gave them 7.5 per cent over three years. Teachers want raises in all three years.
And the union wants a chance to negotiate class size limits and other working conditions, all previously negotiated terms of their contracts that the Liberals removed through legislation. That's not going to happen.
Both sides say they want to avoid disruption in the schools. But neither is doing much to head off the coming crash.
Footnote: There is a solution. The Wright report on teachers' bargaining completed last year outlined an alternative approach which acknowledges that teachers don't have a real right to strike, and substitutes conciliation and a form of arbitration. A future column will look at the risks and benefits of giving it a try now.


Shane said...

Makes me glad I won't be sending my kids to public school. I don't want my kids' education held hostage by these bozos.

Am I missing something or is there a strike EVERY YEAR in BC's school system? Either the Universities, or the Public Schools, or the support staff seem to disrupt education in this province every single year. This doesn't happen anywhere else but BC.

Something is wrong with BC, and I think it is the teacher's unions. Last time I checked, they are NOT the lowest paid and hardest working teachers in Canada. They have no reason to strike other than self-interest and lack of regard for the pupils they are supposed to be teaching.

Dawn Steele said...

Great column, Paul!

Shane, contrary to all the hype and propaganda out there, my child hasn't lost a single day to job action in his public school since he started K in 1999. In contrast, many kids, as Paul notes, are currently losing one day a week to save costs, thanks to the "Bozos" in Victoria who didn't fund the teachers' salary increase that they themselves legislated in 2002.

Like many parents, I initially supported calls to remove class size limits from the teachers' contract to allow more flexibility. The results, unfortunately, have been a predictable abuse of that "flexibility" to accommodate unfunded cost increases.

I've seen the impact of trying to stuff 30 - 31 intermediate kids into one class with reduced supports for ESL, special needs, etc. and I fully support the teachers' efforts to get this better controlled once again, though I'm not sure that the labour contract is the right place to do it.

My son has overcome severe disabilities to become an "A" and "B" student in an East Vancouver public school. That's a credit to our excellent public system and dedicated teachers who do a remarkable job in often difficult circumstances and I applaud them. They deserve our full support in urging their leadership and our government to sit down and negotiate reasonably, as Paul urges, along with a cooling off of all the rhetoric and propaganda.

And I wish that all those who are committed to playing politics would go and play with some other issue that does not involve my child's future. Perversely, those who profess to be most concerned about job action affecting our kids seem to be doing the most to fan the flames to make it happen!!

Gazetteer said...

While I can understand Shane's perspective given the overall state of reportage and commentary in BC at the moment, I can also corroborate Dawn's claim (ie. my child has not lost a day of elementary school due to job action since '99 either).

Furthermore, I do not believe that the majority of the labor disputes affecting post-secondary institutions in recent years have been initiated by the folks actually teaching the classes.

I guess it just goes to show how this business of actually paying attention can alter your perspective on things.

Regardless, I just wanted to congratulate Mr. Willcocks on pounding out one heckuva a modified, reverse trapezoidal lead with razor sharp edges at the top of the current post.....

....And to let him know that I've left him a query on the comments to the second Ferry reservation post over at my place.


Teacher said...

Paul, Interesting to see that the Vancouver Sun headlined this same column "B.C., teachers' sniping over small issues in no one's interest", as if teachers were the problem. Thankfully, the column takes a more balanced approach.

Shane, I am a public school teacher and if I can afford it I will send my daughter to private school. Between the NDP's underfunding and the Liberal's outright funding cuts and attacks on teachers, it is only the effort and dedication of teachers that keeps the public school system together. Unless the Liberals give us a break, stop attacking us, and adequately fund the system, I think that we will end up with the same ghettoized public schools that some of the american states have.

As to teachers' rate of pay and effort I can say that, having worked in private industry for 15 years and taught in half a dozen schools over the last 11, teachers effort and achievment varies among individuals, just as it does in the private sector.

However, very few teachers are in it for the money and the holidays. Don't get me wrong, I like teaching kids and so I accept many of the less palatable aspects of the job (dealing with unpleasant behaviours, late night marking, staff meetings) as part of my duties. But the job I quit to become a teacher (I was a tradesman in a unionized mill) pays better, has better benefits, and almost as many days off. And I only make as much as I do because I am "maxed out" on the teacher salary grid and have earned a masters degree. My wife, who is just beginning her teaching career, makes less than the janitor at the local pulp mill.

If you want public school teachers to keep up their efforts, do some research and let your MLA know your dissatisfaction with underfunding, overcrowding, lack of resources and burned out teachers. The last time I checked, no one works harder when they're told they're worthless, kids or teachers.

Anonymous said...

I disagree with Paul that the answer to the bargaining stalemate will be the Wright report. The Wright report is completely one sided with the employer receiving all the power. How fair is a recommendation that took 14 of the employer's recommendations but took 0 from the BCTF? Also, BC teachers are responsible for the international test results that place BC students in the top 5 nations in reading, writing, math and science...what's the secret? BC does pay teacher's a fair salary, but the pay has been behind other jurisdictions and we are falling behind. Does the public want to preserve a successful system or watch it get chipped away by the Liberals? As premier, Campbell should meet with the teachers as promised after the election. He is the one turning up the rhetoric. His slimy scare-tactic of raising the threat of a teacher strike just before the election is not to be corrected by a simple apology. This was an intentional action to destroy the BCTF and gain more votes. Education should not be the political football it has's too important for all of BC and parents and teachers.
PS: time for parents to realize there is a lot more at stake in public schools than free day care. Get involved and demand the government bargain a contract that will focus on students and get back class-size limits!

Anya said...

First of all ... Shane needs to give his head a shake and actually go talk to some teachers. Don't listen to the rhetoric that comes from the government of the day. Also, find out a little more than the 30 second sound bites on the news.

As to the idea that the Wright report is the way to fix the problem, the Wright report's recommendation wouldn't work well at all. Here is some background as I understand it.

The government has given BCPSEA a mandate to bargain for 0-0 and 0. No discussion of any class size or composition is allowed. Any improvements to salary would need to have a net zero cost. This means that if teachers were to want a salary increase for themselves or for teachers on call, they would have to take a cut in their benefits. They are not even allowed to discuss things like class size or special needs support. This is not bargaining. This is the government holding the big stick and demanding teachers "bargain" to make their situation worse by agreeing to concessions. Of course this process will go nowhere. In what sector, private or public, would anyone engage in this kind of futile discussion.

So, bring in an arbitrator to listen to both sides and come up with something "fair." If it involved anything more than 0-0-0 or a net cost to the governemnt of more than zero, I think they would ignore the arbitration and legislate exactly what they want. They did it to the doctors. The government agrees to the process, doesn't like the results and does what it wants anyway by changing the rules of the game. [This has an eerie similarity to the complaints that Campbell has about the way the US is handling the whole softwood fiasco.]

This whole process can in no way be called bargaining. It was designed to fail by the BC Liberals in the hopes to break the back of the BCTF. I am not sure why or when teachers became the enemy of the state.

What would fix the problem is if the government adequately funded the system giving diverse districts the money they actually need. It shouldn't matter if you live in rural northern BC or in Vancouver. Students should be able to receive the education they require for their future.

Give back bargaining power to the local school boards. They are elected and they are responsible and answerable to their community. They know what their schools need.

The cookie cutter funding formula and the take it or leave it, en masse bargaining structure is not working.