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VIEW: What Clark gains by calling teacher bargaining broken

BCTF President Jim Iker summed up this weekend's bargaining with four simple words: "It's such a shame."

Iker believes that, contrary to government promises to be hunkered down "24/7," there was essentially no back-and-forth bargaining over the weekend. According to Iker, the teachers made a proposal on Friday that came halfway on proposed contract length, within one per cent on wages, and offered a framework on class size and composition that the union believed would help both sides reach a resolution on these two issues. Then the union waited for a response from government.

According to the BCTF president, nearly 48 hours after the union tabled its revised package, government responded with a "no" on lower class size, "no" to improved class composition, and an even lower salary package than what government had already proposed. At a Monday morning press conference, Iker said that government moved backwards on its own salary package. Rather than bargain over the weekend, government simply sat on the teacher's proposal and then said no.

The employers' association disputes the union's version of events, saying that there was progress over the weekend and that its salary package reflected revised benefits and was therefore not a backwards move on wages. That said, government negotiators say that there is no better offer forthcoming, suggesting a possible standstill in the negotiations.

Iker questioned the sincerity of government. He also questioned government's commitment to negotiating a fair and reasonable contract that addresses class size and class composition, and that brings B.C. teacher salaries closer in line with salaries in other parts of the country. Chief government negotiators once again challenge assertions made by the union, characterizing Iker as "misrepresenting" the government's position. Regardless, government is taking a hardline position that threatens to lead to a protracted, costly, and disruptive labour action.

With government seemingly refusing to bargain -- offering a "take it or leave it" package -- a bigger question emerges. Is Christy Clark hoping to break the union through a long and deeply divisive attack?

One clue to this question is the mandate letter that Clark sent to government negotiator Peter Fassbender to "present options to cabinet on ways to restructure collective bargaining with the BCTF." Rather than actually bargain over the weekend, government used the weekend to air its attempts at reframing the issue as a broken bargaining system. Rather than hunker down and bargain, government decided to hunker down and attack teachers, unions, and the collective bargaining process itself.

Clark's letter to Fassbender attempts to frame any outcome of the current round of bargaining as the result of a broken system, which may be why she appears committed to reaching no outcome at all. Furthermore, Clark's letter kicks off the next round in the education debate by attempting to frame collective bargaining as the issue, not adequate funding for education. Since Clark seems committed to invest less in public schools, she needs to deflect the issue, especially if she can do this while discrediting the public education system's greatest advocates -- its teachers.

Framing collective bargaining as dysfunctional (in need of a fix) helps government attack the BCTF in the short term and builds momentum for shifting the balance of power in the long term. This achieves two objectives at once: Damage unions and invest less in public education. Like Iker said yesterday, the government seems to be driven by purely ideological grounds, hoping to seize power at the expense of quality education for all and a fair bargaining system that fits within our democratic and pluralistic tradition.

Make no mistake: The issue in this round of bargaining, as in every round of public sector bargaining, is about the balance of power between government and other sectors in our pluralistic society. While government does have a legitimate electoral mandate and is part of a constitutional system that wields it considerable power and authority, this power is not meant to go unchecked. Government power is not unlimited, both in constitutional and popular terms. The decisions that are ultimately reached through the democratic political process reflect a balance of power, a balance between the governing party, opposition, and civil society (including labour).

At times, reaching this balance requires conflict, a healthy part of any functioning democracy. When this process is respected, we are witnessing a functioning system, whereby balance is reflected in compromises by all sides. Conflict is not a sign of dysfunction. It is a sign of democracy and pluralism.

The public depends on teachers as education professionals to carry out the work of teaching, giving life to the public education system that is a bedrock institution of democracy. We also depend on teachers as advocates of the system. This is no different from the dual roles of doctors and nurses, lawyers and police, firefighters, early childhood educators and other community social service workers.

Like teachers, all of these types of workers form unions or professional associations and bargain collectively in both the public and professional interest. Through the process of collective bargaining, a balance is achieved and essential public services are funded, staffed, and delivered.

There will always be tension whenever political balance is sought. In a democracy, this tension is a healthy part of the process, even when the tension breaks out into a conflict. Our system of collective bargaining takes this into account, by providing both sides in a labour negotiation with tools that are meant to pressure all sides into reaching a deal.

Collective bargaining is like democracy: It's the worst system out there, except for all the alternatives. That's because the "problem" is actually the solution. Collective bargaining provides a means to resolve the tension between those who do the work, those who fund the work, and those who benefit from the work. Everyone has a role to play in this process. Without taxes, there would be no schools. Without teachers, there would be no education. Both taxes, paid by the public through our government, and teachers, who are organized through their union, are needed. Out of this the relationship between the public, government, teachers, and BCTF, we all get a public education that works for everyone.

If we think of conflict and tension as a problem, we risk creating political systems that eliminate tension through fiat. While the tension goes, so goes the legitimacy of the system. Yes, it is hard to work through a conflict, especially on an issue that we all care so deeply about. Education is at the heart of our community, and just about everyone cares about the system itself. We have emotional attachments to it. Seeing a conflict in the system is not only emotionally difficult, it is also personally difficult for students and parents of student who rely on the system. But we should always keep in mind that the system itself was built through the political process. It is the result of the kinds of tensions and conflicts just witnessed.

It's time for Christy Clark to focus on public education, not weakening the present collective bargaining system. The BCTF has time and again conducted itself within the system: Respecting the rule of law, following essential service levels, bargaining in good faith, and focusing on doing what's needed to defend the interests of students, teachers, and the community at large. It's time for government to recognize the value of tension and share power in a pluralistic democracy. It's time for government to bargain in good faith and to get real about reaching a fair and reasonable agreement that meets the needs of B.C.'s students and families through quality public education for all.

Tom Kertes is an early childhood educator and experienced social movement organizer, with a passion for early childhood empowerment.

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