Friday, October 21, 2005

Teachers should take Ready's deal; it's fair

VICTORIA - First, the main point. Teachers and government should both accept Vince Ready's recommendations - without conditions - and get the schools open.
Ready addresses the concerns of both sides, and gives both a face-saving way out of the deadlock.
Teachers don't get a wage increase, but that was never a realistic demand after other public sector unions accepted a two-year freeze.
But they still get more money, in a way Premier Gordon Campbell says the government can live with.
And the union has won an acknowledgment that there are problems in the classroom, and addressed them through the bargaining process, something the government had denied through most of the negotiations..
All in, Ready's proposals will mean the government will come up with $105 million to address teachers' concerns, without any increase to the salary grid.
Ready agreed there's a problem with class sizes and composition for kids in Grades 4 and above. Some classes are too big for children to learn, and include too many students with special needs who aren't getting help. The government should spend $20 million - enough to hire about 320 more teachers - to fix some of the problems, Ready says.
That's a gain for the teachers. The Liberals have maintained those issues can't be addressed through collective bargaining, and that it's the government responsibility to ensure effective learning conditions. Ready is confirming the government hasn't done the job.
Ready also proposes a $40-million injection to "harmonize salary grids" in the province, a measure that both sides supported but couldn't agree on in negotiations. That will mean raises for some teachers.
The BC Teachers' Federation would get an extra$40 million for its long-term disability fund. (Teachers want the government to pay a share of LTD premiums; the government doesn't want to. This is a one-time compromise.)
And supply teachers will get $5 million in improved pay.
It's far less than teachers wanted, far more than the government was prepared to do before the strike.
The money package will probably disappoint some school boards. Campbell emphasized in a Friday morning press conference that the government isn't putting any new cash into the system. The $105 million will come from the savings - about $150 million - that have flowed from not paying teachers for almost two weeks. Some districts hoped much of that money would stay with them for local priorities.
Ready supports the idea of a Learning Round Table, offered by the government on the eve of the strike as a forum for discussing issues like class size.
But he says the government's plan for a forum with equal representation from the BCTF, school trustees, parent advisory councils, superintendents and school administrators, would give teachers two of 10 seats. Not enough, says Ready, and the government has agreed to add more.
The union and government should also be meeting regularly to discuss teaching issues, Ready says. Those talks should include amendments to the School Act to set class size limits for Grades 4 to 12. (Limits were included in the teachers' contract until the Liberals used legislation to remove them in 2002. Limits were added to the School Act for the early grades, but there were only guidelines for average sizes for Grade 4 and up. They haven't worked to protect learning conditions.)
It's a reasonable package. The government has agreed.
But the BCTF is continuing a pattern of incompetent negotiating. Union head Jinny Sims says the union will only accept the recoomendations if the government agrees in writing to amend the School Act by June 30 to include class size limits for the senior grades.
The teachers'mistrust is understandable.
But bargaining is over. Ready has offered both sides a reasonable way out after a nine-day strike, which has hurt teachers, their supporters in other unions and - most importantly - students.
It is ridiculous brinkmanship to risk a longer strike, and more damage, in return for one more concession.
The teachers' union will pay a heavy price in public support if it doesn't accept this settlement.
Footnote: Did it have to come to this? Maybe. Labour disputes have their own pace and rhythm. Sometimes a settlement is not possible until both sides have tested their mutual resolve and bludgeoned into accepting compromise.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Liberals wisely relent on no-talks stance

VICTORIA - The Liberals can't bring themselves to admit it, but the government has broken its vow not to negotiate with striking teachers.
That's a good and responsible thing. The priority now should be on coming up with some acceptable deal to get schools open and head off the escalating walkouts.
And despite all the dancing from the government, that's what mediator Vince Ready is now trying to do.
Ready, a star in the mediation world, is meeting with the BC Teachers' Federation and the BC Public School Employers' Association to look for a possible solution.
Labour Minister Mike de Jong bobbed and weaved Wednesday. Ready was appointed on the eve of the strike to act as anindustrial inquiry commissioner and recommend a new bargaining structure, he said. Time is tight, so he has started
work now, says de Jong.
And make no mistake, De Jong said. The government hasn't retreated from its vow of no talks until teachers return to work,.
Except that working with Ready is Ken Dobell, the former top bureaucrat who is a special advisor to the premier.
Dobell isn't needed to help with the review of the bargaining structure. But he can play a critical role in talks to end the strike. Dobell can speak for the government, and make unofficial commitments that the teachers' union can expect will be kept. And he can do those things without officially breaking the no-talks rule.
The vow not to talk to teachers while they were on an illegal strike was never a good idea.
The rule of law is important, and governments can be expected to denounce illegal acts.
But the courts are capable of dealing with people or organizations that break the law. The teachers' union has already its assets frozen by BC Supreme Court Justice Brenda Brown to cut off strike pay and other funding for the walkout. On Friday it will return to court and likely face significant fines for continued defiance.
The employer's primary interest should be in fixing the immediate problem - in this case closed schools.
That's the approach governments generally take. Last year's illegal HEU strike was ended through a deal negotiated through the BC Federation of Labour.
Premier Gordon Campbell took responsibility. "We have concluded an arrangement supported by the B.C. Federation of Labour that will put an end to this dispute," he said then.
It's still not time to start looking for the kids' school books.In this kind of situation, with damage mounting and no clear end in sight, both sides should be focused on getting a deal, even a mediocre one. The process now should be about saving face and making - and accepting - small concessions and gains.
De Jong suggested the government would be willing look at adding more class size guarantees and other staffing requirements to the School Act. Given the right framework, and commitments for real discussions, that should address some of the union's concerns.
But the BCTF has so far shown no ability to recognize the need for compromise.
More than a week into the strike, it still has a proposal for a 15-per-cent wage increase on the table. It's past time for the union to accept a wage freeze - like other public sector unions - until the next round of talks in June.
Teachers have continued to enjoy wide public support, one of the factors that brought the government to the table. But the polls suggest that will fade as the illegal strike continues. Other unions will also question the usefulness of continuing their support if teachers don't compromise.
Ready will be reminding the teachers of those risks. And he will be reminding the government of it's failure to fix a broken bargaining system or even acknowledge the right of teachers to negotiate working conditons.
The government has blinked in this showdown. It was a sensible thing to do. Now we'll see if the parties can reach deal.
Footnote: The government's refusal to acknowledge that talks are under way is baffling. The public's interest is in a resolution and re-opened schools. Any efforts to achieve that will be well-received.

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.