Monday, April 10, 2006

Ready offers a way to dodge teachers' strike

VICTORIA - Vince Ready's decision to put off an overhaul of teachers' bargaining and push for a quick settlement under the old system makes sense.
Teachers were disappointed when Ready reported he couldn't meet the deadline for recommending a new bargaining structure.
But his interim recommendations should still help head off a repeat of last fall's bitter teachers' strike, welcome news for all concerned.
Ready's proposals would ensure much more effective bargaining between the BC Teachers' Federation and the government.
For starters, Ready says the government has to be directly involved in talks.
The official bargaining agent for school districts is the BC School Employers' Association. But really the government decides all the key issues, from setting the wage mandate to decide what can be bargained. Real problem-solving negotiations require the involvement of decision-makers from both sides.
Both sides should appoint small bargaining committees, Ready says, and the government should name "a senior representative" to convey its position. That's an important change.
Ready also sets out a tight timeline.The two sides should exchange initial proposals by Saturday, and start talks with the help of a mediator. If they don't have a deal by May 15, the government should present "a serious settlement offer," Ready says. If that doesn't get a deal by June 1, then the mediator should report on the outstanding issues, and the  parties' positions.
That's an important step. Teachers' contracts are ultimately settled on the basis of public opinion. The right to strike is an illusion; no government will let the schools be closed. So the question in those circumstances becomes what sort of deal teachers' get in an imposed settlement. And that is usually shaped by the government's guess at what you would think fair.
That's one reason the teachers did well in last fall's illegal strike. Public support - to my surprise, and the government's - stayed with the teachers' union.
So public reporting on the positions should ensure compromise. Neither side will want to look unreasonable, the one to get the blame if schools are closed.
And Ready gives the government a serious poke about taking action on class size and composition issues. Ready's recommendations to end last fall's strike included government action on class sizes, and issues like support for special needs students.
He accepted the government's position that those decisions should not be part of the contract. The problem should be dealt with by the the government’s new Learning Round Table, he said, and it should also consider legislation setting maximum class sizes.
But not much has happened. The Learning Round Table met three time in three months after the strike. Now it hasn’t met in four months, although the next session is set for next week. The class size issue remains unresolved.
That's not good enough, says Ready. The problem is real, and the government committed to action last fall. A plan should be in place before the teachers' contract expires June 30.
It is clear teachers won't sign a deal without seeing some sort of real resolution to issues around class size. The government said last fall that it saw the problem. Its own research showed thousands if large classes. Now it has to respond.
If that happens a deal should be within reach.
The BCTF has naturally been trying to argue for large pay increases for its members. But the public sector pattern has been set - about 2.5 per cent a year for four years, plus a $3,600 signing bonus. If teachers push for more, they will be seen as greedy.
There's still a need for a new way of bargaining teachers' contracts, one that recognizes that the right to strike is an illusion. Don Wright's 2004 report offered a sound model.
But right now attention needs to be focused on reaching a negotiated agreement with teachers in the next two months. Ready has offered an approach that increases the chances of success.
Footnote: The government chose to release Ready's report on the same day Ted Hughes' damning report in the children and families' ministry grabbed the media's attention. Ready puts the government in a tough position on class sizes. Meeting his expectations could mean class size legislation not currently on the agenda.