Tuesday, August 30, 2005

School strike escape plan sitting unused on the shelf

VICTORIA - Expect trouble in schools this fall, unless the teachers' union and government are willing to try an already mapped out escape route.
The BC Teachers' Federation loathes the Liberal government, wants pay raises and is adamant about negotiating issues like class size.
The Liberal government loathes the BCTF, expects teachers to take a two-year wage freeze and says elected officials must decide issues like class size.
Teachers will take a strike vote Sept. 20-22, which will be overwhelmingly positive. The Labour Relations Board will then set essential service levels - perhaps a three-day school week - and eventually teachers will start job action. Parents will freak, and the government will pass legislation ordering teachers back to work and imposing a contract.
Surely it's time to try a better way, especially as the parties have a realistic alternative.
Last December Don Wright, a former deputy minister, prepared a report on teachers' bargaining for the government. Wright concluded that the current system doesn't work because it's built on a lie. Everyone, including the Liberals, pretend teachers have a right to strike. Really, no government will allow more than a brief school disruption before imposing a contract.
So there's little incentive to bargain. If the union thinks an NDP government might be sympathetic, it waits for an imposed deal; employers do the same when the Liberals are in power.
Wright proposed giving the two parties a set time to negotiate. If they were unsuccessful, a commissioner would be appointed to report publicly on each side's position. That should encourage reason; neither side would want to look like the problem. (Ideally, Wright said, the parties would agree on a commissioner; if not they could each submit names to an independent third party, who would pick one.)
The commissioner would then try to help the parties reach a deal. If that didn't work, the employer and union would both submit final positions on all the outstanding issues. The commissioner would pick one set in its entirety to form the basis of the new contract.
It's called final offer selection, and it's seen as a way to promote compromise. Take too extreme a position, and you lose everything. (Normal arbitration can encourage parties to stay far apart, hoping the arbitrator will split the difference in settling the dispute.)
Both sides can find fault with the idea.
Teachers are unhappy that Wright's proposal wouldn't let them bargain class size, support levels and other issues the Liberals stripped from their contracts through legislation.
Those issues do affect working conditions, which are normally negotiable, and teachers say they gave up past wage increases in return for smaller class sizes. But ultimately the issues are also about the best way of providing education, and that's a matter for elected officials.
Wright proposed a separate process that would bring teachers, school districts and the province together "to seek agreement on cost effective approaches to improving working and learning conditions." It's a compromise worth trying.
The government fears the commissioner would impose a deal that that would be too costly, or break the wage pattern that calls for no increase in the first two years of the teacher's contract.
That's a risk. Wright recommended that the commissioner have only two terms of reference in imposing a deal - the need for competitive pay and job conditions to ensure that good teachers want to work here, and the state of the economy and the government's finances. That leaves a lot of room.
Teachers also simply don't trust the government. The Liberals have ignored agreements they don't like. Why go to dispute resolution if only decisions that go against you will be recognized by the government?
But practically, the BCTF has nothing to lose. The realistic choices are a legislated agreement, on the government's terms, or a chance at the new approach. There's no downside.
It seems a perfect chance to try for a better way of resolving school labour disputes, one that really does put children first.
Footnote: The government hasn't ruled out trying the Wright way. A first step could be to appoint a commissioner early this fall to begin the process, preparing the public report on the parties' positions. That would encourage a move towards realistic, practical proposals from both sides.


Anonymous said...

Here we are again, wading through a completely disfunctional round of bargaining between teachers and BCPSEA ( AKA the government's bag man). The root of the reason for teachers taking more drastic action is the complete denial by the Liberals that BC teachers have anything called free, collective bargaining rights that include working conditions ( which translates to improved LEARNING conditions for the students we teach if anybody hasn't clued into this yet.) There are many problems with the Wright report from a teacher's perspective as well, including: who picks the commissioner? If it's the government, forget about it. Final offer binding arbitration may seem a compromise at first, but has a host of problems. This type of bargaining really only is applied in one area anywhere in the world, professional sports. The government's call that education is governed by the "ablility to pay" guarantees that only when the economy is good will we educate our children. Sorry, this is not good enough for the future of BC society. By the way, aren't we sitting on one hell of a budget surplus? ( never mind the ill-gotten way this surplus came about...off the backs of regular working-class people and that fairy-tale tax-cut-that-pays-for-itself) Why did Mr. Wright reject ALL of the BCTF's recommendations but include 14 from BCPSEA? Not an auspicious starting point if "mending walls" was a supposed goal. Why did Mr. Wright keep BCPSEA as the "sole bargaining unit on behalf of the government" when it was this group's refusal to bargain ANY agreement with ANY of the workers in over a decade? does this make any sense? BCPSEA IS THE PROBLEM and the Wright report does not fix this. "The government has the responsibility for education"...I shudder at that thought. It seems to me this government has one plan for BC public schools...underfund them, make them look unsuccessful and then privatize them all! Two-tiered education a'la the USA. Answer me one question Mr. Willcoks please. What are your thoughts about the Liberals openly and flagrantly ignoring a call by the United Nations to rescind the legislation removing teachers' right to strike and making them "essential service"? Do the Liberals flaunt the law? Do they "pick and choose" what suits them? Certainly looks this way to this teacher!

Anonymous said...

As a parent (and non-union, non-teacher, self-employed taxpaying citizen) I fully support putting class size back in the teachers' contract. Since they took out out, our kids have suffered, never mind the teachers.

The argument for removing class size from the contract was flexibility and we all see where that got us. The only other way to end the inevitable abuse is to legislate class size limits, as was done for elementary, and that means you still end up losing the flexibility anyway.

And as for the ridiculous argument that class size doesn't matter...uh, sure, guys! Like how many of you actually believe that size doesn't matter? And why do parents who can afford it fork over $10,000 a year for private schools whose main selling point is smaller classes?

Paul, I'm not sure I get all the arguments for & against the Wright proposal but I think there are other options that should also be explored, like local bargaining. Our school district (Vancouver) has had no such problems in negotiating a series of successful labour contracts with other employee groups. Part of that, I'm sure, stems from the respectful, collaborative and open culture between parents/teachers/employers that our trustees have carefully cultivated.

The BC Liberals have taken glee in bashing teachers at every opportunity since they took office in 2001. Why? Because their powerful union was the main obstacle blocking the Liberals' Fraser Institute-backed ideological agenda for U.S. style education reforms stressing independent/charter schools, cutbacks and traditional test-based rote learning. So they must bear most of the blame for the poisonous climate that is obstructing a solutiuon (though your points re other disincentives are valid). Of course the teachers hate them; wouldn't you, if you'd been treated that way?

Anonymous said...

Local bargaining won't work because boards don't have any taxation authority. Which is why bargaining with BCPSEA doesn't work either, BCPSEA represents school boards that don't control their own revenue.

As a teacher, my concern with the Wright report is that one of the terms of reference for an arbitrator is the government's ability to pay. This is both subjective and open to manipulation. Give an across the board 25% tax cut and all of a sudden you don't have the money.

In the end, teachers are paid using taxes raised by the provincial government and I believe that we should be bargaining with them. As it stands now, the province is hiding behind the skirts of BCPSEA.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

I agree with the last comment, it was a waste of time. Teachers will never get anything from are fucked up goverment! w00t!