Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Ready report delay ramps up risk of fall school strike

VICTORIA - Some sort of teachers' strike this fall has just become more likely.
Sorry to be negative. But Vince Ready's inability to come up with proposals for a new bargaining structure is not good news, at least in the short term
Ready was supposed to report by Jan. 31 on a better way of bargaining teachers' contracts. But instead he told Labour Minister Mike de Jong that the problems were too serious, and he needed more time. He now has until March 31.
That creates big problems. The government used legislation to shut down talks with teachers last fall. Their contract was extended, unchanged, until June 30.
The law was supposed to head off any disruption in the schools. If teachers defied the legislation, the government expected the public would turn against them.
It was a miscalculation (one that I shared). Teachers launched an illegal strike, the public supported them and the union won a partial victory. Teachers got more money, and acknowledgment that class size and support for special needs students were legitimate bargaining points. The government had refused to negotiate those issues.
And Ready was tapped to find a better way of negotiating teachers' contracts.
But the one-year contract extension hasn't bought enough time.
Ready will likely meet the March deadline, but the parties will then need time to decide if his proposals are workable.
Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. In an effort to encourage speedy negotiations, Finance Minister Carole Taylor promised a $1-billion bonus fund for public sector groups that signed new agreements before their contracts expired March 31.
She's prepared to tap next year's budget contingency fund to offer a similar bonus for teachers - a $130-million carrot..
But it's hard to see how that money can play a useful role. Assume Ready reports March 31, and both sides take time to respond. Legislation would then likely be needed to change the bargaining structure.
That means late-April at best for a start on talks under the new model. Given the complexity of the issues, the chances for a deal by June 30 look slim.
Especially because Ready is considering big changes. His interim report didn't have much substance. He emphasized how dysfunctional the bargaining relationship has been for more than a decade, since province-wide bargaining was introduced.
And he highlighted the teachers' union proposal for a two-round bargaining process - with the right to strike available each time.
First, the union and government would negotiate the total amount available for teacher compensation, to be divided among school districts.
Then, union locals and school districts would bargain about how best to apply the money. One district might decide to hire more special needs support staff. Another might choose to pay teachers more. An isolated district might need incentives to attract teachers.
It's an interesting model. Certainly the existing bargaining structure is a failure, with the problems made worse when the Liberals outlawed negotiations on workload issues like class size.
The BCTF proposal would allow real bargaining on money, between the union and the actual decision-makers. And it would restore more local flexibility.
But it brings new problems. The union could target the weakest districts, win concessions and then demand parity. School districts and local unions lack the experience and skills to bargain effectively after a decade away from the table.
The public is unlikely to be keen on two chances for a strike in each set of talks.
And the fundamental problem remains. Teachers do not have a real right to strike. No government, left or right, will allow education to be disrupted for more than a brief period. An alternate way of resolving deadlocks - like the final offer selection proposed in the Wright report - needs to be adopted.
Realistically, that is not going to happen in the next few months.
And that means a risk of more conflict - and job action - as teachers and government bang heads in the same old way.
Footnote: The union is meeting in early March to develop its bargaining mandate, and expects talks to start soon after. The union is looking for significant wage gains, arguing teachers here have fallen behind. The government mandate suggests it expects a settlement at around 2.7 per cent a year. Add class and composition issues, and the stage i set for tough talks.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Here we go again. For the past forty years everytime the teachers reached some for of dealing with government (From WACBennet to Campbell) government changes the goal posts and rewrites the rules. That is this kind of disingenuous double dealing that strangles free collective bargaining, emasculates school boards and parents and in general is dishonest in the extreme. Anything Ready comes up with will be toast anyway before the next bargaining round. The politicians just can't leave well enough alone whether NDP or Other.