Friday, October 07, 2005

Note on comments

I've had to add a slightly clunky step for people who want to post comments.
It's needed to thwart the spamsters who have now targeted the Comment section of blogs like this for their junk.
The good news is that if they are that desperate, the business is on its last legs.
The bad news is that you need to copy a wavey word before you can comment.
I hope people still will, and once again note the reason and respect shown by people who comment on the issues raised here.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Bungling on both sides as teachers go on strike

VICTORIA - It looked like amateur hour at the legislature Thursday as teachers prepared to walk off the job.
Who are the good guys in this, a Press Gallery colleague wondered aloud?
No one, really.
The Liberal government has invited this strike and failed to take the most simple steps to try and head it off.
When the government used legislation to rewrite the teachers' contract in 2002, taking out clauses governing issues like class size, it created an obvious problem.
The reasoning behind the change makes sense. Class sizes, for example, are an issue of educational effectiveness and one of many possible priorities. The ultimate responsibility for deciding on the best approach should lie with elected trustees and MLAs.
But they are also vitally important to teachers, and an important element of their working conditions. They need a chance to make their case on issues like class size, and support for special needs students.
The problem was clear then. It remained clear over the last three years. And commissioner Don Wright reminded the government of the need to address teachers' concerns in 2004. They have legitimate rights which the legislation removed.
But the government did nothing that could be considered even a serious effort to address the problem. Only Thursday did Labour Minister Mike de Jong announce that Vince Ready would review the bargaining process, and consider teachers' concerns.
Education Minister Shirley Bond also leaped into action Thursday, holding up a new "Learning Round Table" as the forum that would solve teachers' disaffection.
It was an ludicrously empty political gesture. The membership and mandate were undefined, though Bond said trustees, teachers, parent advisory councils and administrators should all be involved. The round table wouldn't have any real power; Bond would just relay the substance of the discussions to cabinet. It was meaningless.
And it turned out the government hadn't even pitched the idea when BCTF head Jinny Sims, BC Federation of Labour head Jim Sinclair and other union leaders met de Jong a few hours earlier in a last-ditch effort to head off the dispute.
Bond said the government had just decided on the round table. And she acknowleged that reporters were hearing about it before the BCTF. That's an indication the round table proposal has more to do with dodging the wrath of parents than reaching a deal.
Meanwhile, Sims emerged from the meeting with de Jong demonstrating just how tough it would be for even a more skilled government to get a deal with the union.
The BCTF has real and serious grievances.
But the union has treated collective bargaining like a crusade for justice, with Sims comparing the strike to acts of civil disobedience by civil rights campaigners in the American south.
Effective collective bargaining demands realism. The goal is to get the best deal you can, not to insist on achieving what you consider your due.
And sometimes, that means accepting a crummy deal indeed.
Both government and union have sat in a car speeding toward a cliff for a couple of years now, each insisting the other should do something about it, neither willing to reach out and grab the steering wheel.
And now we're at the cliff.
Negotiations often take unions and employers to the edge. But smart ones leave themselves a last-minute way out - a concession that can allow both to claim partial victory, a path to reluctant settlement.
The BCTF and the government haven't done that. The union does not appear to be interested in compromise; the government's silly "round table" ploy shows it is not prepared to make a real effort.
The losers are children and parents.
The loss of a few days of school are a major hassle for many families, especially working parents.
And the prospect of a school system staffed with teachers who feel beat up and abused by their employer is much worse news.
Footnote: The strike is illegal even without passage of the contract legislation, since the LRB hasn't yet set the required essential service levels. It now looks like we face several days of court proceedings, and penalties for teachers and the union. It's a result that signals failure by everyone involved.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Children's deaths need to mean something

VICTORIA - If it takes a study by Judge Thomas Gove to restore proper reviews of children's deaths in B.C., then let's get it done.
Something was lost when the Liberals wiped out the office that - among other useful functions - used to investigate children's deaths in B.C.
Look at the numbers. In six years the Children's Commission reviewed and reported on 800 children's deaths.
In the three years since it was eliminated, there has been one public report by the coroner, and two reviews by the ministry.
It is a big loss.
The Children's Commission released the reviews every few months, in batches. It was generally a depressing day. The reports were sad - children dying of sickness, or in car crashes, or committing suicide.
But the deaths often offered lessons, and the commission made sure they were heard. Sometimes, the children were in government care, and the lessons involved the ministry of children and families. The reports raised alarms about children bounced between foster homes, or left with too little support.
And they raised alarms about other issues, reminding us how many youths die because they don't wear seatbelts, or how often warnings of suicide are ignored, or how adult alcohol abuse puts children's lives at risk, or even how the right choice of a bicycle can save lives.
They were lessons from death. Because someone was looking, they were discovered. Because someone reported them, those lessons were shared.
It seems a useful government function, a way of providing the public with information on how well the ministry was doing, and on how we could keep all children safer. But the Liberals shut it down.
That is about to change.
Children and Families Minister Stan Hagen announced this week that he and Gordon Campbell had met with Gove to hear his concerns about the accountability lost along with the Children's Commission.
As a result Gove, Child and Youth Officer Jane Morley and Chief Coroner Terry Smith would be reporting on the current system on reviewing and reporting child deaths, and possible improvements, Hagen said.
Gove, whose 1995 review into the death of Matthew Vaudreuil led to the creation of the children and families ministry, has made his views clear.
The controversy over the death of 19-month-old Sherry Charlie was unnecessary, Gove told the Victoria Times-Colonist's Lindsay Kines.
"If the children's commission. . . was still in existence at the time that this little girl died, they would have done a death review in the normal course," he said. "It would not have required any politician to instruct anyone to do so. That report would have gone to the experts panel. They would have made recommendations, which may well have examined and challenged some of the policies that had her placed where she was. . . And that report would have been made public."
"We do not have a service close to what we had before," Gove said.
He's right, despite the government's denials. The numbers speak for themselves. Maybe too many reviews were being done, and the scope can be narrowed. But eliminating all public reporting was damaging.
The other troubling aspect to this is the government's inability to look critically at its own actions - to learn from mistakes, and successes.
The government insisted that the summary of the internal review of Sherry Charlies' death was all anyone needed to see - until public pressure, helped by Morley forced release of a more complete version.
It insisted that the report was adequate - until questions from the New Democrats forced the promise of one narrow review, then a slightly wider one. Then Morley and the Ombudsman both stepped in.
And it has insisted that reporting deaths is fully adequate - until Gove and the NDP raised the political pressure.
It's good to respond to public concern. But what's emerging is a picture of a government unable to take a hard look and learn from is own inevitable mistakes.
Footnote: "When any child dies in this province, that should be referred to an independent review board, with people with the expertise, knowledge and understanding to get to the bottom of every single death, so that we can do everything in our power to prevent such deaths from taking place." - Gordon Campbell, 1996.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Imposed teachers' deal a badge of failure

VICTORIA - It wasn't much of a surprise when Labour Minister Mike de Jong stood up in the legislature Monday and launched a pre-emptive strike on teachers.
No chance of a settlement in the dispute between the BC Teachers' Federation and the BC School Employers' Association, said de Jong.
So rather than wait for the job action to escalate, the Liberals introduced legislation to impose a new contact, making a strike illegal. (Like most unions, teachers are barred from job action when there is a contract in place, even an imposed one.)
It was, given the situation, the only real option. Deputy labour minister Rick Connolly had just reported that "there is no prospect for a voluntary resolution at the bargaining table."
The failure was "predictable," said de Jong, explaining the decision in his office. "The history of these two parties is that they have never in the past 10 or 15 years been able to negotiate an agreement."
The comment highlights a Liberal failure.
The deadlock was predictable. The parties haven't reached a negotiated deal since bargaining under the current structure began in 1993. The possibility of settlement became more remote in 2002, when the Liberals passed legislation to strip the teachers' contract of critical provisions, including class size limits and guaranteed number of support teachers.
Which means that the government could have seen this problem two years ago - or last year, when their own review identified the problems - and moved to address it.
De Jong took that step now.
The legislation extends the teachers' current contract for a two-year term, with no changes and no wage increase. The contract expired in 2004. Now it's extended to next June.
De Jong said that by the end of the week he will have appointed an industrial inquiry commissioner to recommend a better way of reaching contracts with teachers. The commissioner will report in time to allow a new system to be in place before talks start next year.
BCTF president Jinny Sims wasn't pleased. Sims said she had been fighting tears as she watched the pronouncement from inside the legislature. Teachers would decide quickly on their next step, she said.
None of the parties emerge from this looking good.
The negotiations were always certain to have problems. The union wanted a significant raise; the government told the employers' association that teachers, like other public servants, would have to take a two-year freeze.
And teachers wanted to negotiate issues like class size, and support for special needs students. The government said no chance.
It was a tough spot for teachers. There was very little to negotiate, and the employers' association knew that all it had to do was wait, and the government would impose a contract on its terms.
But negotiating isn't about justice and righting wrongs. It's about getting the best deal possible under the circumstances. The BCTF never accepted that reality.
The government never accepted what de Jong now says is so evident - that the bargaining system doesn't work. Commissioner Don Wright identified the problem in a report to the government last year, and offered a solution. If talks didn't work, a third party would conciliate. If that failed, union and employers would submit their best offers and the conciliator would pick one to form the new collective agreement. Issues like class size, while not part of the contract, needed to be discussed with the union in a separate process, Wright said. (Connolly made the same finding.)
But faced with a predictable, foreseeable problem, the government didn't act.
It's tough to measure the consequences. It should be a concern when teachers are denied the right to negotiate working conditions that is enjoyed by others under our system.
And it's bad for the quality of education if large number of teachers feel abused and unheard.
It may have been impossible to avoid this outcome. It would have been nice if all concerned had tried harder.
Footnote: De Jong's choice of inquiry commissioner, and the amount of freedom offered by the terms of reference, will be critical in at least establishing the chance of success. A broad mandate will will be needed to convince teachers the exercise is serious.