Monday, October 17, 2005

Campbell loses showdown with teachers

VICTORIA - You got a pretty good indication of why Premier Gordon Campbell and the government are losing the battle with teachers Monday.
The demonstration on the legislature lawn was impressive, certainly one of the largest of the last several years.
But it wasn't just the size.
I ran into a former co-worker, a semi-retired sales manager who valued individual enterprise and I am sure has never voted NDP in his life. He looked a little sheepish, or uncomfortable. "I never though I'd be at one of these things," he said, looking around at the signs and cheering crowd.
But his wife is a teacher, and against all odds and inclinations, he was part of the protest.
The government has badly misjudged the public's attitude in this dispute.
It has been a surprise. People generally don't support illegal strikes. The rule of law is important, and the public rightly expects it to apply to everyone.
But the teachers have proved an exception, an indication that the public believes they have been treated unfairly by the government.
It's a reality the Liberals have not accepted.
As the protesters got organized for the march, Campbell launched a pre-emptive strike by press conference.
It would have been a good time for something new, something that addressed the public perception of unfairness and the teachers' issues.
But Campbell stuck with the hard line. No talks of any kind as long as the strike continues. No new incentives to end the strike, not even the tiny kind of concessions that could let the BC Teachers' Federation consider a tactical retreat.
"This is not a labour dispute, as this illegal action has been characterized by some unions," Campbell said. "This is a question of law and how to move forward." That means the government has no obligation to talk with teachers until they quit breaking the law.
But it is a labour dispute, despite the premier's wishful thinking. It's about wages and working conditions, and the right of people to form a union and bargain.
The dispute is also about the law, and public opinion, and politics. But it's a fantasy to pretend there aren't real issues.
What's needed is the ability to accept reality. Unions have staged illegal strikes before, and it makes employers furious. Most figure they have to live with the law, and the union should too. It's an entirely understandable frustration.
But employers recognize that the courts can handle the legal questions. The BC Supreme Court has all the tools needed to ensure Jinny Sims and the union are held accountable, and the full mandate to enforce the law. The government - like other employers - can safely step back. The courts don't like being treated contemptuously.
And smart employers keep lines of communication open, and are available for talks.
Not just the private sector. The law around charging unions with criminal contempt for illegal strikes was shaped by a 1992 Supreme Court of Canada decision on a strike by Alberta nurses.
The court upheld the principle that that unions could face criminal contempt charges.
But reading the background is interesting. Alberta's Conservative government charged the union with criminal contempt of court when it struck in 1988. But on the same day, it appointed a mediator to help resolve the dispute.
While the nurses' union was appearing in court, the government named a second conciliator. Talks continued.
The Alberta government response recognized that the courts could deal with the lack of respect for the law. The employer's dominant interest was in getting nurses - or in this case teachers - back to work on acceptable terms.
That's a challenge. Sims says the union will bend, but its track record isn't good.
Still the government's obligation - like any employer - is to solve the problem. It may be deeply troubled by the union's illegal strike, but it should be more troubled that kids are out of school.
This dispute has already cost more than four million pupil days - more than were lost in 10 years under the NDP.
That should be the government's main concern.
Footnote: Special prosecutor Len Doust, appointed Monday, is going slow on criminal contempt charges. Teachers would have to be seen as challenging the rule of the courts; SIms has been careful to say that the union's fight is with the government, not the courts. It's no excuse, but it could save the union from the toughest penalties.


Anonymous said...

For parents and students, the harsh reality of an extended strike is increasingly setting in, but watching Campbell and De Jong's ham fisted approach to dealing with Jinny Sims' tantrumming is deeply frustrating.

Instead of soothing troubled waters, their every pronouncement seems calculated to infuriate the teachers more and escalate the crisis

It's like dealing with fighting kids who have both provoked each other. "Of course your baby sister shouldn't have smashed your CD but you provoked her by grabbing her doll, and yes, she's annoying but that's still no excuse to beat her up."

The Liberals are the teenagers in this one, and like it or not, they're going to have to make the first move or at least shut up and stop aggravating the crisis, because that's we expect of the one who holds more power.

Gazetteer said...


It seems to me that perhaps the attitude of your former co-worker is a very important one.

He is like the bellweather of all those Global watching, CanWest reading, Giant98 (and AM600 before today) listening folks out there that would like to get mad at whacked out leftists screaming into the cameras.....

However, the teachers are neither whacked-out nor screaming. And very many of them do not even come off as leftists.

They are reasonable and they are principled. And it is their faces and voices and words that your everyman is seeing, hearing, reading and have sympathy for more and more (ie. as opposed the union and BC Fed leaders).

And the result?

Well, perhaps it is reflected in that 2:1 public support for the BCTF in the Ipsos-Reid poll released Monday.


Dave Macmurchie said...

Basically it comes down to arrogance. In his first mandate, Mr. Campbell won 97% of the seats in the house, but ruled ("governed" would not be appropriate) as though he had the support of 97% of the population. He seems to have learned nothing from the recent election, because with his majority in the house reduced to 58%, he continues to behave as though 97% of the population supported him, instead of less than half of that.

He and his ministers have been making much of how citizens, especially teachers, should conduct themselves in a democracy, but he might do well to give some thought to how a government conducts itself, and what distinguishes it from a dictatorship.

Anonymous said...

Another aspect of this brouhaha that could bite Campbell was the casual mention in some stories yesterday of the presence of representatives from other provincial teachers associations at the protest.

If he allows this to get so out of hand in BC that teachers associations in other provinces sense an opportunity to tip the scales back towards themselves in their home provinces, Campbell could win some serious enmity from his fellow premiers.

I am also tremendously disappointed that Taylor and Oppal are proving so amenable to Campbell's confrontational style. I really had hoped that they would prove to be a conciliating influence. Evidently not.

Wayne Fowler said...

Did anyone notice that Campbell said he had not imposed a "rage" freeze. A wonderful irony and for once he's telling the truth.

Anonymous said...

If he'd only said this before the teachers and the BC Liberal government wasted 35 bargaining sessions:

"We agree that there are classes that are too large, and that's not acceptable."

"We agree class composition is critical. If there are examples of classes with too many special needs students for any one teacher, that's not acceptable."

Gordon "no contest" Campbell - October 17, 2005.

In other news...
Jeff Hodson reports in Metro Vancouver (Oct 18 /05) - If criminal charges are brought against teachers, Crown counsel will be unable to prosecute. Michael Van Klaveren, president of the B.C. Crown Counsel Association (BCCCA), “It is our position, right now, that prosecutors are in a conflict of interest position when it comes to prosecuting any teachers.”

Over the past two years, the BCCCA has been immersed in a labour dispute with Victoria.

The BCCCA has twice won binding arbitration in relation to wages and working conditions. But in February, the provincial government introduced Bill 21. The bill threw out the binding arbitration; ordered prosecutors back to work; imposed a three-year contract and wage freeze; and stripped away their right to withdraw service.