Thursday, October 13, 2005

Ruling may end strike, but school woes just mounting

VICTORIA - That was a clever move by Supreme Court Justice Brenda Brown in the teachers' strike.
But it doesn't do anything to head off big problems in the schools.
Brown wisely put off imposing fines on the BC Teachers' Federation, and concentrated instead on making it impossible for the union to keep the strike going.
The union's finances were frozen, and it's barred from spending any money or taking any action to continue the strike - including providing teachers with $50 a day in strike pay. The BCTF is also ordered not to take money from other unions to keep up the battle.
It's a creative, apparently unprecedented approach.
Heavy handed, certainly, but Brown's goal was to force the union to end the illegal strike. Her solution doesn't appear to violate any of the teachers' charter rights, since there's no protection for illegal activity.
Teachers' first reaction will likely be anger. The government has gutted their contracts, failed to take any steps to allow effective bargaining and imposed a new agreement. Now the courts have taken away their right to draw strike pay from funds they contributed to the union over the years.
For many long-serving teachers, the loss of $250 a week in strike pay will be unpleasant, but not critical. They will want to stay out, and perhaps be more determined.
But for others the prospect of days or weeks with no income will erode their resolve, particularly because it's difficult to see any positive outcome to the strike.
And the union will face its own logistical problems if it's denied access to all resources, and have to accept the threat of large fines.
So although BCTF head Jinny Sims said that the union is reviewing its options, it's hard to see what choice is left beyond a return to work within the next week.
But no one should be celebrating . Brown's ruling was effective in achieving her goal of enforcing respect for the law.
For students, and the school system, it simply worsens a bad situation.
Teachers are being forced back into the classrooms feeling abused and betrayed, stripped of the rights that most employees in Canada enjoy. The government has taken almost every opportunity to poke at them with a sharp stick, and made no real effort to address their legitimate concerns.
Yes, the BCTF has shown a destructive inability to compromise. It has treated bargaining as a crusade for justice, instead of recognizing that labour negotiations are about getting the best deal possible under the circumstances.
But the government has been unable to recognize that the relationship with teachers will continue long after this dispute ends.
Labour Minister Mike de Jong had a chance to be conciliatory in responding to the court decision Thursday.
He let it pass, choosing instead to continue the attack, suggesting teachers are on strike because they're afraid of reprisals from the union. That claim isn't supported by independent reports from the picket line and it insults teachers who believe they have been driven to an illegal action by legitimate concerns.
It was a time to reach out, to acknowledge the depth of teachers' frustration, and the government's role. The Liberals have known the bargaining structure was hopelessly flawed, even commissioning a report last year on an alternative.
They did nothing to head off the inevitable conflict. Only on the eve of the strike did they announce another report on the bargaining structure. And their last-minute proposal for an Education Round Table, where teachers, trustees and administrators would talk about class sizes and other issues, was too late and too vague.
Brown's ruling will likely bring an end to the walkout.
But the entire affair has increased teachers' anger and frustration, bad news for the classroom, and a guarantee of rocky times when contract talks start again next year.
Footnote: Brown's ruling appears to bar the union from any activity supporting the strike, from printing more signs to faxing information to members. That raises questions about what will happen if the BCTF - or other unions - support teachers' plans for a major protest in Victoria Monday.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Dingwall and other federal follies - and a real scandal

VICTORIA - And on to the perennial column topic - more reasons why you should be angry at the federal government.
Let's start with David Dingwall, who has quit as the president of the Royal Mint, a $240,000-a-year patronage job that Jean Chretien gave his former cabinet minister by Jean Chretien.
Dingwall resigned under a couple of clouds. His expense claims had come to light, and they looked bad. Despite being paid six times as much the average Canadian, Dingwall still stuck taxpayers with the bill for his home Internet connection and $1.29 package of gum. And he rang up $860,000 in expenses in one year, including $5,700 for one restaurant meal and $2,500 in limousine costs, on top of the company BMW.
Dingwall also acknowledged accepting an illegal $350,000 fee as a lobbyist in 2000. He was promised the money if he scored $15 million for his client under a dubious federal technology handout program. He lobbied well; they got the money; he got the illegal payment.
You quit your job, that's usually it. But Dingwall's Liberal friends plan to pay him severance, perhaps up to $500,000.
We have to, says Prime Minister Paul Martin.
There are no facts to support that claim. Nothing in Dingwall's contract, the law or anywhere else justifies a dime in severance.
And then there's gas prices.
Not something we can do much about, says the federal government.
That's not really true. For one thing, the federal government imposes the GST on gas. Every price increase means more money for Ottawa. Shifting to a flat levy - as B.C. imposes - would help consumers.
But the federal government has helped one group. Federal employees - including MPs - just got an increase in their car allowance from 46 cents to 50.6 cents per kilometre, because of rising gas prices.
First, that's a huge car allowance - and more than Ottawa lets other workers claim as a tax deduction. And the increase isn't warranted. For a typical car gas price increases have added costs of 3.4 cents a kilometre since last year. The federal government sportily adds an extra cent per kilometre.
Is it a big deal? Sure, because it shows - like Dingwall's severance - that the people in charge don't worry much about how they spend your money.
Or how they hurt your interests. The Nelson Daily News has reported admirably on a proposed 30-per-cent duty on the bicycles most of us ride - bikes that cost less than $650.
Two bicycle manufacturers in Quebec - in Liberal ridings - are worried about Asian competitors. So they lobbied for the duty, and won an early victory. If the federal cabinet agrees, then when it's time for the first two-wheeler for your child you'll pay 30-per-cent more than you should.
No one is saying Asian companies are doing anything wrong. The few Canadian producers just don't like the competition.
Finally, and most significantly, Parliament has once again rejected raising the age of consent for sex from 14 to 16. Years before you can vote, or drink, or get a credit card, children are prey for 40-year-old with a smooth line or bright promises. A boy or girl in Grade 9 is considered fair game.
Conservative MP Nina Grewal's motion to raise the age of consent was flawed, failing to exempt youngsters choosing to have sex with their peers. But other countries with higher ages of consent, like the U.S., Britain, Australia - even Thailand - have solved the problem by barring prosecution of people within two or three years of each other.
Changing the law would let parents could use the threat of criminal charges to face down a sexual predator interested in a young daughter. Johns would have to factor one more risk into the equation when they hired young girls. Police, who favour the change, would gain a tool.
The Dingwall scandal, the other federal follies, they're serious.
But the federal Liberals' failure to protect children is scandalous.
Footnote: The age of consent in Canada was only lowered from 18 in 1987. The move to 14 went too far, and the result has been increased exploitation of children. The Liberal MPs who voted down the change need to hear directly from Canadians who think it's wrong for men to have sex with children.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Poll shows teachers win by going back to work

VICTORIA - The government and teachers are now battling for your good opinion.
The BCTF's strike isn't about economic pressure, the key factor in most job action. School districts are saving about $18 million a day because of the walkout.
The only real purpose - apart from venting - is to put political pressure on the government so it will bend on teachers' demands for more money and a say in job conditions like class size.
Parents and the public will soon be angry about the school shutdown. The question is who they will blame.
If it's the government, then political considerations could force some compromise on its part.
If the public holds the BCTF responsible, then the government can safely stand pat, and take a tougher line in whatever new system of bargaining it imposes for the talks starting in the spring.
That means public opinion should be the critical factor for the union as it decides what to do about the Supreme Court ruling that the strike is illegal.
Justice Brenda Brown found that everyone in society has to obey court orders, or "anarchy cannot be far behind." But she put off imposing penalties until Thursday, a useful wait to allow tempers to cool. "I am hopeful that teachers are responsible citizens and they will pay attention to my ruling," Brown found.
In the meantime teachers and government should both pay attention to the only serious public opinion poll on the dispute so far available.
The Mustel Group - the most accurate of the pollsters in assessing the last election campaign - found that teachers have easily been winning the battle for public opinion.
Two out of three of those surveyed with a view on the dispute supported the teachers, the poll found.
The public is also not buying the government's argument that teachers have to take a pay freeze like other public sector employees. More than two-thirds of those with an opinion backed the teachers' proposal for a 15-per-cent increase over the government's demand for a freeze. (That should make the government edgy as it heads into new talks with the rest of its unions. The public appears to believe that big surpluses mean the government can afford raises.)
And the teachers' focus on class size has found a receptive audience. About 85 per cent of those with an opinion say class size affects children's education. Both the government and teachers say they care about class size, but since the government's actions have resulted in larger classes teachers own the issue.
All good news for the union.
But then things turn in the government's favour. British Columbians were basically split on whether they supported or opposed the teachers' strike plan. (The poll, based in interviews with 315 adults in the Lower Mainland, was taken the day before the strike started.)
And about two-thirds of respondents said they wouldn't support the teachers' strike once legislation made it illegal.
That means the dispute is at a crossroads. Public opinion is the only real weapon teachers have. Up to this point, they have won that battle. The government knows the public is on the teachers' side, and that has to temper its response.
But that could swing quickly if the union persists in an illegal strike.
At this point a long strike can't win anything for the teachers. Staying out will not bring a raise, or class size negotiations.
Instead, public support will be eroded, and the government will face less pressure to take a fairer approach to the union's issues in the new bargaining model.
Brown has given both sides until Thursday to come up with the least damaging end to the job action.
The smart thing - for union and government - is to look for a solution that shows some willingness to compromise.
Failing that, the union has to recognize the critical long-term importance of public support. A continued strike in defiance of the law would do lasting damage to its cause.
Footnote: Both political parties are likely relieved that the legislature is shut down this week for a Thanksgiving break. NDP leader Carole James - after some prodding - said teachers should obey the law. But the issue is problematic for the New Democrats as well as the Liberals.