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Slammed by court on teacher dealings, Libs can't say they weren't warned

Even before Gordon Campbell was elected premier of British Columbia, he and his Liberal party were campaigning hard on taking away bargaining rights from the teachers union in order to make class sizes "flexible." And the head of the BC Teachers' Federation at the time, David Chudnovsky, sent a preemptive letter to Campbell on May 8, 2001, pleading he not "make any unilateral changes to the collective bargaining system."

Chudnovsky noted Campbell's Liberals looked set to win the next week's election, and warned, "Over the last decade in Ontario, governments have made the error of imposing unilateral and dramatic changes in public education. The result has been conflict and instability. The teachers of B.C. do not wish to go down the same road, but if forced to, we will strongly defend our bargaining rights and the improvements we've achieved for teachers and students in British Columbia."

Chudnovsky singled out BC Liberal candidates' vows to strip teachers' rights to bargain on class sizes and composition, and to make it illegal for teachers to strike.

In 2002, with Christy Clark as education minister, the BC Liberals fulfilled Chudnovsky's fears by changing the law in ways the B.C. Supreme Court has twice now ruled unconstitutional. The latest ruling, yesterday, slapped B.C.'s government with a $2 million fine, the judge finding the BC Liberals bargained in bad faith for over a decade as part of a strategy to provoke a teachers' strike, sow discord, and gain political advantage.

Here's the letter by Chudnovsky that, if heeded 13 years ago, might have saved B.C. taxpayers $2 million, and teachers, students and their families a lot of turmoil:

May 8, 2001

Honourable Gordon Campbell

Leader of the Official Opposition

Leader of the B.C. Liberal Party

Room 201, Parliament Buildings

Victoria, BC V8V 1X4

Dear Mr. Campbell:

Public opinion polls indicate that you are likely to lead the next government of British Columbia. Therefore I am writing to you today to raise several issues of importance to B.C. teachers with respect to positions you and your party have taken during the campaign.

You have identified the imposition of "essential services" in public education as one of the changes that would take place within ninety days of forming a government. The BCTF has sought the details of this proposal from you and others. To this point the responses to our questions have lacked clarity. They have in fact been inconsistent, ambiguous and confusing. We have been unable to determine, therefore, the precise impact such an initiative might have on existing bargaining rights.

You are, however, aware that B.C. teachers are currently at the bargaining table with our employer representatives, the B.C. Public School Employers' Association. The imposition of any new process for resolving outstanding contract issues, in the middle of an already complex bargaining round, would only serve to make resolution more difficult.

B.C. teachers are, and have been for many years, justifiably frustrated with the current structure and process of collective bargaining. However, we believe it is not in the interest of the system to make dramatic changes during bargaining. On behalf of the teachers of the province I ask that, should your party form the next provincial government, you not make any unilateral changes to the collective bargaining system. Once the parties have concluded a collective agreement the BCTF would be pleased to meet with you or your representatives to discuss the effectiveness of the current bargaining regime. Indeed, we look forward to meeting both with the new Premier and the new Minister of Education to put forward our views on this important issue.

I have been made aware that Mr. Gordon Hogg, the education critic for your party in the legislature, has stated that a Liberal government would introduce "flexibility" into existing class size provisions in B.C. Since class size limits currently in effect are part of the collective agreement between teachers and our employers, I assume that Mr. Hogg was simply suggesting that government representatives to BCPSEA would advance such an idea for discussion, and that it might at some future date, if adopted by the employer group, be advanced at the bargaining table. Teachers and their employers have over the years concluded numerous agreements containing class size provisions, including the most recent one to bring the primary class size limits into the provincial collective agreement. Once again, should your party form a government, I urge you to avoid any intervention in this delicate and complex matter that would inevitably result in a more protracted and difficult bargaining process.

You should be aware that in October of 1999 the B.C. Teachers' Federation participated in a survey of B.C. residents on attitudes regarding "flexibility" and class size. The results were instructive and I share some of them with you.

Respondents were asked, "In most collective agreements in B.C. between teachers and their employers, there are limits regarding class sizes, that is, the number of students that can be placed in each class. Do you support or oppose having such limits?" Eight-four percent of British Columbians and 88 per cent of those with children in public schools supported such limits.

More importantly, those surveyed were tested on their response to two opposing points of view. "School boards argue that limits on class sizes should be removed to allow more flexibility in structuring classes. Teachers argue that class size limits are required to maintain quality education. Which is closer to your view?" Seventy-seven percent of British Columbians and 82 per cent of those with children in public schools said they support maintaining the limits on class sizes. It is important to note that even the employer association representing school boards, BCPSEA, no longer makes this argument. They have agreed with BCTF that current provisions for "flexibility" in the collective agreement are adequate.

There is today broad recognition among the citizens of the province that B.C. teachers have negotiated important improvements for students through collective bargaining. This is true not only for class size limits, but also with respect to services for students with special needs, provision of library, counseling and learning assistance and many other services and programs.

Over the last decade in Ontario, governments have made the error of imposing unilateral and dramatic changes in public education. The result has been conflict and instability. The teachers of B.C. do not wish to go down the same road, but if forced to, we will strongly defend our bargaining rights and the improvements we've achieved for teachers and students in British Columbia. BCTF members want, more than anything, the respect to which we are entitled for the work we do in the classrooms of the province. We ask that you and your party commit yourselves to showing that respect, and to working with us to continue to build on the quality public education system enjoyed in British Columbia. We stand ready to engage in productive discussion and debate on key education issues with any new government.

I will be addressing a meeting of local BCTF presidents and bargaining chairpersons in open session on Wednesday, May 9 and plan to inform them of my communication with you on these matters. I will be asking them to forward copies of this letter to their local Liberal candidates. I ask that you consider seriously my comments, and work toward establishing a positive relationship with teachers should the voters choose to elect you on May 16.

Yours truly,
David Chudnovsky


B.C. Liberal Candidates
BCTF Executive Committee
BCTF Local Presidents

David Beers is editor of The Tyee.

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