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Long-Awaited Agreement No End to Teacher and Gov't Tension

Both will make a pit stop in court on the rocky road to respectful negotiations.

Katie Hyslop 28 Jun

Katie Hyslop reports on education and youth issues for The Tyee Solutions Society. With files from Andrew MacLeod.

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BCTF president Susan Lambert: 'We've got boundless energy for this.'

After almost 16 months and 80 bargaining sessions since negotiations began, the BC Teachers' Federation executive has accepted a tentative collective agreement with government.

Sticking to the government's net-zero mandate, benefit improvements, including extended leave for family illness and bereavement, take the place of salary increases or shrinking class sizes.

"This has come together to the surprise of many people, including me," said Education Minister George Abbott during a press conference yesterday morning.

"There was some very skillful work put together by [mediator Charles] Jago looking at how the parties could come together, forging some modest agreements, which I think the parties were able to build on. The parties spent some very long days and very late nights putting together what became the tentative agreement.

"This was not a babe that was easily born. It took a lot of work."

But the BC Teachers' Federation (BCTF) is not celebrating their third negotiated agreement with government in almost 20 years. Saying the deal does "nothing for schools," the BCTF is taking the government back to court, this time over Bill 22, which set the parameters of the negotiations.

"We've just got to try every avenue to maintain the rights and protect the rights of members," said Lambert, adding she wants this suit to force government to restore the $3.3 billion, adjusted for inflation, they cut from the education system almost a decade ago.

"We've got boundless energy for this."

But where both parties agree is regarding the tone of negotiations, which has bordered on hostile. With the New Democratic Party waiting in the wings to possibly form government next year, and the Liberals facing another round of teacher negotiations next spring if they stay, all sides admit for the sake of public education, the relationship between teachers and government needs to improve.

'Punitive legislation' or friendly chat?

The tentative collective agreement, which will be applied retroactively to July 1, 2011 and ends June 30, 2013, sees benefits improve for close to 75 per cent of teachers "for the first time in 20 years," according to Lambert.

Some of the benefits include extending paid compassionate care leave to eight weeks from six, and a minimum of three days unpaid discretionary leave.

Previously the 60 BCTF locals had differing leave benefits. This change brings them all to the same standard, unless their leave agreements were even higher, in which case they remain the same. The 60 locals will vote on whether to accept the agreement today and tomorrow. The BC Public School Employers Association (BCPSEA), who represent government in teacher negotiations, hopes a final decision will be made by July 4.

Lambert says the benefit changes will cost government $2.6 million. But Premier Christy Clark says the agreement was within the government's net-zero mandate.

"We achieved this in a [net]-zero mandate, which protects taxpayers, and one that makes sure that we are doing it within our balanced budget plan," she said during a press conference with Minister Abbott yesterday.

In an email to The Tyee, a Ministry of Education spokesperson confirmed the upfront $2.6 million cost, but said the benefits contract was separate from the overall collective agreement, which was negotiated under the net-zero mandate.

Lambert says the main reason the BCTF executive accepted the most recent contract presented by the BCPSEA was because it didn't include "punitive legislation" like the removal of teacher seniority, post and fill provisions, and union autonomy over professional development days.

But Minister Abbott says the government's intention was not "contract stripping" but to create consistency among the 60 school districts with regards to these issues.

"One of the things that the agreement provides for through a Letter of Understanding is the opportunity for the parties to sit down to negotiate in good faith and hopefully constructively, important public policy issues like post and fill, layoff and recall, professional development and evaluation," he said.

Back to court again

The BCTF also used yesterday's press conference to announce the filing of yet another civil suit against the government in BC Supreme Court -- this time over Bill 22, the Education Improvement Act, which created the negotiation parameters, including the net-zero mandate and the ban on discussion of working conditions until the 2013 negotiations.

"This civil claim is aimed at getting our rights back," said Lambert, referring specifically to salary negotiations and the rights removed by Bills 27/28, including negotiating class size and composition.

In April 2011, the BC Supreme Court ruled Bills 27 and 28 unconstitutional and gave the government one year to fix it. The result was Bill 22, which sets class size limits on the primary grades, but removes the need for principals and administrators to consult with teachers in higher grades before increasing their class numbers above 30.

Last week the teachers' union announced it was headed back to court over Bills 27 and 28 in December. Lambert estimates the union has spent approximately $1 million in the decade of legal battles over the two bills.

"[A] teacher's first obligation is to their students in the classrooms. We will never, ever abrogate that responsibility, we will always strenuously advocate for a high quality public education system in British Columbia," she said.

Repairing relations

Lambert believes the government was pushed to reach an agreement with the teachers' union because of the negative public perception of a legislated contract.

"I think that they began to see that that kind of tactic would be seen as bullying and disrespectful of teachers," she said.

Adrian Dix, leader of the opposition New Democratic Party, certainly saw it that way. He held his own press conference yesterday in which he said respect was a major ingredient missing from this round of talks.

"Clearly the bargaining process wasn't particularly fair for teachers, and that will have long-term consequences I suspect for the education system," he told the media.

"People leave the table with the sense of having received respect. I think it's fair to say that respect hasn't been given over the last 10 years. But that said, these negotiations are always going to be difficult."

When asked if he would increase teachers' salaries in the event his party forms government after the 2013 election, Dix didn't respond directly but said part of the problem was both sides negotiating in public rather than at the negotiating table. But one thing the teachers can expect from him, he says, is respect and fair treatment.

"This is not the time, in this economy and this skill shortage, to be constantly fighting in education," he said, adding 80 per cent of B.C. jobs in the near future will require post-secondary education.

"We have to find ways to work together to improve public education, and that's why, I think, I have a very different approach from the provincial government."

Minister Abbott expressed similar concerns about the negotiations. He says he hopes both the union and the government will take the time between now and the next round of negotiations to work on their rocky relationship. After close to 40 years of battles between teachers and government, it's a relationship in dire need of mending.

"Regardless of who is elected in 2013, I do think that the BCTF needs to sit down and try to build that mature, constructive relationship that has proved elusive for so long," he says.

"The fact of the matter is, when government and the BC Teachers' Federation fight, neither of us are really hurt by that. The people who get hurt are principally the students of the public education system."

With no changes to education funding, classroom size and composition, or teachers salaries in this latest contract proposal, need and impassioned demands will only increase over the next year. Maintaining respect during heated debates over a contentious and important public service may take more work than either political party or teachers have bargained for.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Education

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