Friday, October 28, 2005

Government stirs the teachers’ pot with pay ploy

VICTORIA - It seems destructive for either side to come off a bitter illegal strike and immediately start poking at the other.
But that’s what Education Minister Shirley Bond has done in the days since the teachers’ strike ended.
Bond was quick to offer the news that she was considering keeping schools open through spring break, or into the summer, to make up time lost to the strike.
It could be a reasonable option, if there the time lost couldn’t be made up in less disruptive ways. But so far, school districts across the province have said they can manage without major disruptions to the existing schedule. Grade 12 students may needs some extra class time, and provincial exams could usefully be delayed, but extra school days aren’t needed.
Bond’s speculation just alarmed parents and angered teachers, who saw it as having more to do with punishing them than helping students.
Then things got worse. School districts were told not to ease the impact of 10 days of lost pay on teachers and opt for a punitive approach.
Many school districts were looking at ways of making sure the pay deductions didn’t inflict unnecessary hardship on teachers. Deducting the money in one month would mean a teacher would lose 50 per cent of her salary for that period, a big hit; spreading it over two months would mean a 25-per-cent cut in each month.
But a letter from education deputy minister Emery Dosdall to school superintendents seemed to rule out that flexibility.
“It is the expectation that all payroll adjustments will be made on the October payroll statements," he wrote. And as insurance, districts would have to send in monthly salary reports so the ministry could check up on them.
Bond bailed on the requirement quickly, in part because some districts - like Victoria - reminded her that they were the employers, and the ones who decide how to pay people.
All a misunderstanding, said Bond. "Let's be clear, we didn't insist. We simply laid out the process we expected school districts to consider.” (It is a rule of thumb that anytime anyone starts a sentence with ‘let’s be clear,’ things are about to get murkier.)
Except that when the ministry learned North Vancouver trustees planned to ignore the memo and spread the deductions out over two months, the district got a call from the ministry saying it expected to be obeyed.
Even if you accept the dubious claim that this was just some sort of idea the ministry was throwing out for school districts to think about, the principle remains the same.
Bond’s ministry had a chance to allow a solution that helped teachers and carried no real hardship for the government or school districts beyond some lost interest.
Instead it opted to try and force a punitive response. Successfully, in some cases. Vancouver school trustees deducted the pay in one chunk, based on what they saw as the ministry’s directive.
It’s difficult for both sides to let anger go after something like a strike.
But poking at the old wounds, or imposing unnecessary hardship on the other side is destructive.
And in this case, there is no time for that kind of pettiness.
The Education Round Table is supposed to setting a new co-operative tone; that’s not going to work unless both sides quit picking at it each other.
The BC Teachers’ Federation and the government will be back in some form of bargaining within months, since the imposed contract expires next June.
And the ministry is planning a substantial expansion of its role, taking on responsibility for areas like early learning and community libraries.
Managing all these changes is going to take co-operation, not more of the same old squabbles.
Footnote: The expanded ministry role is likely to be set out in legislation this spring. Dosdall told trustees last week that adding responsibilities like literacy to the ministry and expanding the role of schools as community centres demand a new look at the role of school boards, according to Penny Tees of the BC School Trustees’ Association.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Perfect storm of public sector contract talks tests Libs

VICTORIA - Carole Taylor better get going fast on her plan to find better ways of bargaining public sector contracts.
By next June - seven months from now - almost everyone in the provincial public sector will be negotiating contracts, from teachers to doctors to clerks at ICBC.
That’s some 235,000 people, all expecting gains and catch-up increases to make up for the wage freeze in their last contracts.
And, of course, looking hungrily at the government’s billion-dollar surpluses.
The two-year wage freeze meant that almost all those people lost about four per cent in real wages. Just making that up would add about $600 million to the cost of government.
Negotiations are always challenging. These will be much more difficult.
For starters, many of the unions are unhappy about rough treatment during the Liberals’ first term. The broken promise to respect contracts, the failure to honour arbitration awards and the willingness to fire thousands of people so they could be replaced by cheaper employees all created illwill.
The teachers’ strike also heartened public sector unions. The unions managed an effective series of protests, and the teachers held the public’s support even after the strike was declared illegal.
Taylor, as finance minister, is responsible for the government’s position. She’s working on a bargaining mandate for negotiators now, setting out the limits for spending increases.
But Taylor says she also wants a new look at the whole negotiating process.
“What I’m thinking about is how we can do things differently - how can we move it off just straight dollars,” she said this week. “Are there other things that are important to peoples’ lives that they would be interested in, have we been imaginative about this, have we asked unions about what would be top of mind for them?”
Maybe there should be incentives for early settlement, or for longer term contracts, she said.
It’s the right approach. Setting a mandate and expecting it to apply across the board - even with some substantial tinkering - doesn’t allow for the best solutions.
But don’t expect too much change, too quickly.
The BCGEU contracts expire at the end of March, and the union is working on its position now. There’s not much time to establish this new relationship.
And there’s not much trust, and a lot of pent-up demand.
BCGEU head George Heyman said the union’s starting point is that members should get back what they lost due to the wage freeze or pay cuts, plus an increase. That means a catch-up of 4.1 per cent across the board, and up to 15 per cent for some employees who took cuts to keep their jobs. Employees are also worried about privatization and job security.
Factor in the reactionary nature of most unions, and and the chances of change shrink. The government may be willing to come up with larger increases for skilled workers in high demand; the union will almost certainly argue for an across-the-board increase.
Taylor and the government should learn from the teachers’ dispute.
The union - despite some extreme positions, chronic rigidity, an illegal strike and closed schools - had the public’s support. The government was the bad guy for most British Columbians.
Partly, that reflects fondness for individual teachers. But it also suggests a public view that the government tends to bully its unions, and treat employees unfairly.
Public sector negotiations can be much affected by that kind of public opinion. Governments can ultimately impose any contract terms they wish, as the Liberals have shown. What restrains them, ideally on top of respect for employees and understanding of the benefits of a positive workplace, is public opinion. Governments do not want to look like bullies, or spendthrifts.
There is always a chance for a positive, relatively painless outcome to negotiations, and Taylor’s interestin a new approach is encouraging.
But this huge set of negotiations faces big challenges, and missteps by either side could lead to serious damage.
Footnote: Doctors may provide the government with its first test. The BCMA is in talks now on an increase to doctors’ fee schedule. The medical association has an extra weapon - the ability to force the dispute to early arbitration. The government’s response will be seen as a signal of its approach to this round of bargaining.

Press release guidelines

1) Write a snappy, active headline
- No more than 10 words
- Summarizes story, but also pitches to media interest
- Not "?Major triathalon here Sunday,"? but "Local Olympian joins Sunday triathalon,"? or "Blind senior going for gold at Sunday triathalon"

2) Get an interesting first paragraph
- Think of the editor or producer, but also neighbours - what would make them keep reading
- Think local - all media want to be local
- Use local names, the impact on local communities

3) Use quotes
- They should sound real, and convey real information
- (Get permission)
- Include quotes from more than one person
- Good quotes can get the whole release used; bad quotes can be fatal

4) Use facts
- DonÂ't say helped many families; say 1,600 families
- DonÂ't just say dental health is the foundation of all health, say studies have found people with gum problems are twice as likely to suffer from heart disease

5) Worry about length
- Generally, a page, but if you have a lot it may be worth going longer
- Make sure all the important information is in the first half

6) Consider a fact sheet
- You can support the release with a backgrounder, in point form, on the issue, your organization or the event
- Interesting, brief facts

7) Consider multiple versions
- See thinking local

8) Always have a contact (or two) with number

9) Follow up
- See if they got it
- Note the contact name, or add to list if you sent to wrong person
- Supply more information
- Get feedback

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Glimmers - faint - of softwood hope

VICTORIA - Rich Coleman is sounding pretty optimistic about progress in the softwood dispute.
Coleman's hope rests partly on this week's deadline for the U.S. to respond to the final NAFTA ruling on the duties. The U.S. lost the case, and was given until this Friday to lift the trade barrier.
The U.S. government and industry have brushed off the ruling. The justifications vary, but the message is the same - forget about NAFTA. The two sides need to negotiate a deal. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stuck with that position when she dropped in Ottawa this week.
But despite the dismissive talk from the U.S., ignoring the NAFTA ruling would be a significant step. The U.S. will have a hard time being taken seriously in future trade talks if it is ignoring the deals it has signed.
Prime Minister Paul Martin - belatedly - has also taken steps to pressure American politicians. Martin raised softwood in speeches and interviews in the U.S. this month, getting some media attention.
He made two points in particular that - if skillfully advanced - could put pressure on U.S. politicians to resolve the dispute.
First, Martin noted that the duties push up lumber costs, adding $1,000 to the cost of an average U.S. home. It's a short step to paint the American lumber companies as profiteers exploiting people trying to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina.
And second Martin raised the possibility that Canada would look towards China and other new trading partners if the U.S. can't be trusted. That would include a push to sell more oil and gas to China. Practically, it's only a moderate threat. The U.S. will be Canada's main trading partner for a long time, and the relationship will be more important to us than it is to them.
And energy is a commodity. Companies will sell it where they can get the best price. The tactic could still be politically effective in the U.S., playing to twin public fears - energy dependence, and the potential emergence of China as a huge economic rival. Ottawa can reinforce its position by backing away from U.S. proposals for a continental energy strategy.
Critics complain Martin’s new militancy is mostly about helping the Liberals improve their prospects in the coming election.
But the pressure is still helpful. Coleman has refused to link energy policy and softwood, rejecting an NDP call to hold up the sale of Terasen Gas to U.S.-based Kinder Morgan.
He does support Martin’s tougher talk as a way of getting the Americans to pay attention.
Coleman is guarded about how he thinks the dispute can be resolved. Forest ministers from softwood provinces have been in discussions on a new strategy over the last two weeks, and government forestry officials from across the country met in Vancouver last week to work on the plan.
Coleman says he has spoken with federal International Trade Minister Jim Peterson, and expects more discussions this week.
It’s tough to be overly hopeful. After Martin raised softwood with George Bush in a phone call last week, the conversation drew a couple of questions at the daily White House press briefing. But it was the last item of 10 that were raised - after reporters asked what Bush thought about the Minutemen volunteer border patrols.
The softwood issue doesn’t matter much yet to most Americans. And it matters a lot to the lumber companies, who are prepared to cling to duties as long as possible. Each day means fatter profits. (Which they keep even if the U.S. ends up returning the $5 billion in duties so far.)
Canada does have a better chance now to reach a deal than it has since the dispute began.  
Martin is setting preconditions on any negotiations with the U.S., requiring the Americans to accept the NAFTA ruling and commit to returning the duty.
It’s a reasonable position. It’s better to stick with legal actions than accept a bad deal with long-term consequences.
Footnote: Coleman said Tuesday he welcomed this week’s Ottawa mission by the Coast Forest Products Association, which is seeking aid. Coleman acknowledged a “crisis” in the coastal industry, and said he’s asked the industry for proposals for an aid plan to include short and long-term measures.