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Abbott blames teachers' union, hints at legislation

Education Minister George Abbott stated the government's case against the teacher's union in an editorial today, pouring scorn on the union for "steadfastly (refusing) to accept British Columbia's economic and financial reality," and hinting at legislation if a fact-finding mission rules bargaining is at an impasse.

With negotiations between the BC Teachers' Federation (BCTF) and their employer, the BC Public School Employers Association (BCPSEA), reaching their one-year anniversary next month, Margaret MacDiarmid, current minister of labour and former minister of education, announced yesterday the appointment of Deputy Minister of Labour Trevor Hughes as a fact-finder into the negotiations at Abbott's request.

This isn't the first time teacher negotiations have come to this: in 2005, then-Labour Minister Mike de Jong appointed Labour Associate Deputy Minister Rick Connolly as a fact-finder into teacher negotiations. Connolly determined both sides had reached an impasse, and the government legislated a contract.

The BCTF released a statement yesterday saying they will work with the fact-finder, but doubt the independence of government bureaucrat.

"We certainly hope this is a genuine process, but we worry that it’s simply designed to pave the way to an imposed contract," said BCTF President Susan Lambert in the release.

Although Abbott says he will wait until the fact-finder's report is due on February 23 before making any moves, he says he isn't willing to let the school year go by without any report cards or participation of teachers in administrative duties.

"I am simply not prepared to see a school year pass without every parent in B.C. getting a fulsome accounting of how their children are progressing in school. I am particularly concerned about the impact on vulnerable students," reads the editorial.

Read below for the full Abbott editorial and BCTF release:*

Abbott welcomes inquiry into teacher bargaining process

Opinion-Editorial By George Abbott Minister of Education Feb 10, 2011

VICTORIA - Since being appointed Education Minister last March, I've had the pleasure of visiting 95 schools and half of the province's 60 school districts. I've met with hundreds of teachers, students, parents and administrators.

Every visit and every meeting has only reinforced in my mind that British Columbia has a great education system, filled with people who are passionate about what they do.

I've seen first-hand how important teachers are to student success.

I also know how important it is for teaching assistants, administrators, principals, parents and teachers to work together to support learning. It takes co-operation and a team of people to help students reach their full potential.

Unfortunately, the current teacher's strike makes this kind of co-operation virtually impossible.

Teachers are not attending staff meetings nor any other meetings at which the principal is present. There are no collaborative meetings between teachers, principals, vice-principals, district staff and education assistants. There are no written communications with principals, whether they are student marks, progress reports, or report cards. Unfortunately, it is often the very students most in need of our educational teams who bear the brunt of the union's actions.

Almost a year ago, employers and the teachers' union sat down to negotiate a new contract. We made it clear from the outset that we had a net-zero mandate. But employers also wanted to talk about how to improve benefits for teachers, how to ensure the right teachers are matched to the right jobs, and how to support good teachers so they can become great teachers.

Then last fall, government put $165 million in new funding on the table to deal with class composition issues. And yet - like everything else we brought forward - the teachers union walked away from discussions on how to best use those funds. Their singular focus has been to secure a large salary increase - 15 percent over three years -- and other major compensation improvements estimated at over $2 billion.

Despite 11 months of negotiations and nearly 80 bargaining sessions, there are few signs of progress. We have successfully negotiated agreements with all other major public sector unions. The teachers' union, unfortunately, steadfastly refuses to accept British Columbia's economic and financial reality. The union's proposal to increase personal income taxes by 25 per cent to pay for their wage demands is completely unreasonable and ignores the needs and challenges of families across this province.

The strike is having a real impact on students and creating a strain in our schools and classrooms. There is rising anxiety, frustration and concern amongst all educational partners about the length of time this dispute has gone on and the impact on 500,000 students across British Columbia. Government would prefer to negotiate an agreement, but we cannot let the current impasse drift indefinitely.

I am simply not prepared to see a school year pass without every parent in B.C. getting a fulsome accounting of how their children are progressing in school. I am particularly concerned about the impact on vulnerable students.

This past week, in an effort to resolve this issue, I asked Labour Minister Margaret MacDiarmid to appoint a neutral party to inquire into the status of negotiations. It may well be that this individual can find reasons to be optimistic about continuing negotiations - or it may be that government will need to look at other ways to resolve the dispute.

This past fall, we announced BC's new Education Plan to transform education and better prepare students for the 21st century. It has been a great success. Now, more than ever, we want teachers to work with all the educational partners to improve our system.

But to move forward, we need to restore some degree of normalcy to what remains of the school year. And I sincerely hope the neutral party, working with the employers and the teachers union, can help us find that constructive path.

George Abbott Minister of Education

The BCTF February 9 release:

Teachers will work with fact-finder, despite worries government aims to impose contract

BC teachers will engage fully with the process initiated today by Labour Minister Margaret MacDiarmid, but they have deep concerns that the outcome may well be predetermined.

“We certainly hope this is a genuine process, but we worry that it’s simply designed to pave the way to an imposed contract,” said BCTF President Susan Lambert.

At the request of Education Minister George Abbott, today MacDiarmid appointed Trevor Hughes, her assistant deputy minister, as a “fact-finder” in the ongoing labour dispute. He was given a deadline of February 23, 2012 to determine the answer to the question: “Can the two parties come to a voluntary settlement?”

“Teachers firmly believe that if there is good will on both sides, the answer to that question is yes,” Lambert said. “However, we are concerned about the lack of independence in the process.”

She noted that Abbott’s representative at the bargaining table has repeatedly stated that government’s objectives are non-negotiable. “Now, instead of going to an independent mediator who could have brought the sides closer together, they’ve appointed one of their own from within government to determine whether a solution is possible,” Lambert said.

She called on Abbott and MacDiarmid to ensure that the “fact-finding” process is, indeed, a genuine one. “I certainly hope there is a sincere intention here. Otherwise, we have to question whether we are being asked to take part in a charade.”

Lambert reiterated that, from the beginning of this round of bargaining, teachers have worked hard to achieve a negotiated settlement at the table.

“We’ve demonstrated that we are ready to take the steps necessary to reach a fair and reasonable agreement. Now it’s government’s turn to compromise and negotiate in good faith,” Lambert said. “After all, it’s in everyone’s best interests for both sides to reach a mutually respectful collective agreement. That’s our goal.”

*Updated at 2:00 p.m.

Katie Hyslop reports on education and other issues for The Tyee.

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