Friday, March 25, 2011

Both sides to blame for coming teachers' strike

We're heading toward another teachers' strike in B.C., and parents and taxpayers should be angry at the government and the B.C. Teachers Federation.
The bargaining relationship - or non-bargaining relationship - between the union and the government is needlessly destructive.
Worse, the parties - the BCTF, the school employers bargaining association and government - seem incapable of taking the basic steps to fix it.
The current contract expires June 30. The government says teachers will be subject to same two-year compensation freeze as all other public sector unionized employees. That still leaves room to shuffle money around - higher salaries in return for reduced benefit costs, for example.
The union wants raises to bring salaries in line with Alberta and Ontario; by its assessment, that means a 12- to 20-per-cent wage increase. The BCTF also wants to be able to bargain workload issues like class sizes and the number of special needs students per class.
Bargaining always involves some posturing, positions taken just so they can be given up in a later show of purported good faith. But a bid for a 20 per cent pay increase in these economic times is just silly.
Especially because the only justification is that teachers somewhere else are getting more money.
There is no widespread teacher shortage in B.C. Would-be teachers continue to spend years as substitutes because the prospect of a full-time job is so alluring. University teaching programs are over-subscribed.
The union could argue that teaching is no longer attracting the best people, but it hasn't. (Pay ranges from about $42,000 for a beginning teacher with minimum qualifications to $80,000 for a teacher with years on the job and additional education. Holidays are very good; the work is important and challenging.)
Parents might as well begin thinking about how to occupy their children this fall during the ritual teachers' strike, followed by a back-to-work order and imposed settlement. Back-to-work legislation is inevitable in a strike. No government can allow long school closures; the NDP has legislated teachers back twice, the Liberals once.
This is all especially discouraging because the parties have been offered two different approaches that could avoid a pointless deadlock.
Vince Ready, asked to look into a 2006 dispute, recommended a new bargaining approach for this round.
Both parties should establish their objectives eight months before the contract expires, he wrote. That would have been last Sept. 30.
A facilitator/mediator - either agreed to by both parties, or appointed by the labour minister - should then immediately begin to meet with them in negotiating sessions, and where helpful make recommendations. A senior government representative should be at the table. And the parties should develop an agreed on statement of facts about the current situation - cost of compensation and benefits, recruitment issues and the rest.
Don Wright, who reviewed bargaining in 2004, recommended another approach. If negotiations failed, he said, a third party should conciliate. If that didn't work, union and employers would submit their best offers and the conciliator would pick one to form the new collective agreement.
Instead, the negotiations are heading down the same pointless path.
The union is far from alone in bearing responsibility. The Liberal government has been both thuggish and incompetent in dealing with the BCTF. It ripped up contracts, broke the law, failed to keep class sizes at reasonable levels and dumped its problems on school districts.
And despite a lot of talk about education, there has been no progress in improved results during the Liberal decade. Schools are good, but not improving.
It's not too late. The parties could adopt Ready's approach and start realistic talks. The government could stick with its no net pay increase mandate. The union could win a commitment to cut class sizes and provide more preparation time. They could bargain.
But in the meantime, if you have kids in school, plan for some down time next fall.
Footnote: Education Minister George Abbott was disarming at the recent BCTF convention and deserves full credit for showing up. And if real bargaining starts, he might wish to talk to Finance Minister Kevin Falcon, whose leadership campaign promises included more money for exceptional teachers.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Budget shouldn't have provoked an election

OK, the federal budget wasn't a great effort - mediocre even.
But there was also nothing in it that justifies the apparent decision by all three opposition parties to force an election. Unless something changes, Canadians could be going to the polls - or staying home - as early as May 2.
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's budget presentation Tuesday pretty much offered a status quo approach, one consistent with the Conservative's past practices and election platforms.
The government is on track to eliminate the deficits - ramped up after the 2008 economic meltdown - by 2015. It went ahead with planned corporate tax cuts.
And while spending will be tightly controlled, the budget numbers did not suggest draconian cuts lie ahead. Overall spending in the next three years is to rise by about 2.5 per cent a year. Given inflation and population growth, that means some curbs, but not deep cuts.
Uninspiring, perhaps, but hardly outrageous.
The opposition parties disagree. Liberal leader Michael Igantieff says the government's priorities are wrong, urging more spending on social initiatives and less on defence. (The jet fighter purchase will figure prominently in a Liberal campaign.)
Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe wants, as always, more money for his Quebec.
And NDP Leader Jack Layton says the budget failed to deliver on the issues he had set out as critical for winning the party's support, including measures to help poor seniors, pension reform and the elimination of the GST on home heating.
The Conservatives could have made a better effort to find common ground with Layton and reduce the chance of an election.
The budget did offer a $50 a month increase in the old age supplement for the poorest seniors, a benefit that will help some 500,000 people. And it extends the EcoENERGY Retrofit program that subsidized home renovations to reduce energy use, another Layton demand.
But instead of addressing the other issues, the budget included measures that seem more aimed at providing photo ops in an election campaign.
The budget creates a Children's Art Tax Credit, which lets parents claim a tax deduction for the first $500 spent on art classes or music lessons. It should be politically popular, but it's foolish policy. Effectively all other taxpayers will be subsidizing people affluent enough to afford private lessons for their kids.
Volunteer firefighters will get a similar tax break.
And, more usefully, people who care for ill relatives will get a tax credit worth about $400 a year - small, but welcome, and a nice campaign plank.
It was tough to find any specific measures aimed at B.C. in the budget - so much so that a news service roundup of regional initiatives left the province out entirely.
There is $60 million in funding for forest-sector research across Canada.
But forest-dependent communities across B.C. face a looming crisis as pone-beetle-killed wood is harvested and future timber is decades away from being harvestable. They need support now, for economic diversification efforts and retraining.
There is still a chance an election could be avoided, by a measure as simple as having a few opposition MPs skip the coming non-confidence vote.
But it appears that within the next 10 days - and perhaps by the end of the week - the Harper government will have fallen and Canadians will be facing an election campaign.
That's likely to be a destructive effort. Not just because the campaigns will feature more of the attack ads that discredit all involved, but because polls suggest voters have no great enthusiasm for any of the parties or their leaders. Too many of us will hold our noses and vote for the least offensive party - or simply stay home.
And worse, the polls also suggest that the outcome will most likely be a return of the Conservatives with another minority government.
That's a lot of disruption just to maintain the status quo.
Footnote: A federal election hands Premier Christy Clark a challenge. The provincial Liberals are a coalition of federal Liberals and Conservatives. A hard-fought campaign risks leaving bruised feelings and divisions. The campaign could also limit Clark's flexibility in calling a provincial vote.