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Gov't Announces Plans for Labour Peace with Teachers

Teachers' union welcoming but wary of six-week consultation plan to improve negotiations, relations.

Katie Hyslop 18 Oct

Katie Hyslop reports on education and youth issues for The Tyee. Follow her on Twitter @kehyslop.

Ten years after Premier Christy Clark, then education minister, introduced Bills 27 and 28 limiting teachers' collective bargaining rights and imposing a contract through legislation, she wants to re-examine the bargaining process.

At a press conference yesterday Clark, along with current Education Minister Don McRae, announced their intention to end bad blood between government and teachers through a six-week consultation period on reforming teachers' collective bargaining process.

"Our first goal is long-term labour stability with teachers in British Columbia. Our second goal is to improve how government interacts and works with the [BC Teachers' Federation]," says Clark.

"These two goals are going to require compromise on all sides of the table, including ours."

BCTF president Susan Lambert welcomes the initiative, saying teachers have been asking for a new bargaining process for years.

"We tried for two years prior to the last round of bargaining to initiate a conversation about changing bargaining structures with the ministry of education--two successive ministers of education -- the ministry of labour, and the ministry of finance with no avail. So we welcome this initiative," she told reporters at a press conference following government's announcement.

But she's cautious, too. Successive education ministers have promised to return peace to relations with teachers in the past, particularly under the current Liberal government. So far none have succeeded.

10-year agreements a possibility: Clark

Although this decision came as news to the BCTF -- Lambert says McRae sent her a letter yesterday morning informing her of the press conference's topic -- it's been a long time coming.

Clark told the press that she asked McRae and his team to work on improving teacher bargaining shortly after a deal was reached with the teachers in June. At least two press conferences have been announced by the government since September concerning a "special announcement," only to be later cancelled before yesterday's announcement.

Despite managing to achieve the third collective bargaining agreement through negotiation, not legislation, in 19 years -- the second also under the Liberal government in 2006 -- the premier says collective agreement battles are hurting children's education. If government could fix the relationship with the teachers, and repair the collective bargaining process, she says the effect on children could be long lasting.

"It's worth thinking about what could be achieved, for example, with a 10-year deal for teachers. Imagine, a child in Grade 2 starting this year could go all the way to Grade 12 without any threat of labour disruption," she says, adding the impact would be positive on teachers, too, who she recognizes dislike labour strife as much as government.

Students suffering for 12 years: Lambert

But while Clark hopes for a decade of labour peace, the BCTF repeated for reporters a common their mantra that students have been suffering from education cutbacks for the last 12 years.

"We've had, since 2002, a year after year assault on public education. So students who began their schooling in 2002 are now in their graduating year, and every year successively they've seen a deterioration in their conditions at school. They've seen their class sizes increase, they've seen their services cut," says Lambert.

This isn't the first time government has promised to improve relations with teachers. When George Abbott was first appointed education minister in 2010 he promised to improve relations with teachers. That soon soured when teacher collective bargaining negotiations started in 2011.

Lambert was unable to attend or listen in on the government's press conference as the BCTF executive was meeting yesterday, and says she heard about Clark's 10-year contract dream through Twitter. It gave her pause about the sincerity of government's efforts this time around.

"It seems to me that talking of a 10-year contract is putting the cart before the horse. It seems to me conclusions drawn that would be a product of the bargaining table and not a product of a discussion on the bargaining structure," she says. "If they've already reached that conclusion, have they reached conclusions prior to the consultation?"

But McRae emphasized this process was only about the bargaining structure and not what was bargained. And Clark says it's important everyone put aside any pre-conceived notions of failure, especially since government succeeded in bargaining collective agreements with teachers, nurses, resident doctors, and government employees.

"Please work with us to make sure we can keep our education system not focused on arguments between adults. Instead keep our education system focused on the kids that we are all obligated to serve," she says.

Research reports already done

Starting as early as today, McRae plans to meet with the BCTF, parents, trustees, and administrators about improving collective bargaining with hopes of finishing consultations by late November. The government already has valuable information on this topic in the form of two government commissioned papers from 2004 and 2007. Despite ordering them, Clark says government did little action on implementing the recommendations.

"Voice, Accountability and Dialogue: Recommendations for an Improved Collective Bargaining System for Teacher Contracts in British Columbia" by Don Wright was completed in Dec. 2004, a year after it was commissioned by the Ministry of Labour.

After consultations with the BCTF, the BC Public School Employers Association, the BC School Trustees Association, as well as individual school boards and other organizations, Wright came up with 10 recommendations for improving collective bargaining.

These include establishing what should be bargained locally and what provincially; government accountability on the development their bargaining mandate; determining what level of disruption to the school system is allowed in the event of job action; and establishing concrete consequences for not achieving a bargained agreement by deadline.

In 2007, Industrial Inquiry commissioner Vincent Ready released his recommendations for improving the bargaining process after overseeing the 2005-06 teacher collective bargaining processes.

Ready also sought input from teachers and their government employers and made four recommendations, including that teachers and government establish their bargaining mandates no later than eight months before teacher contracts expire, a facilitator/mediator is picked by both parties eight months prior to contract expiring in the event a deal can't be reached, and at least one government official be appointed to the BCPSEA board.

Lambert is generally positive about revisiting these reports.

"There are some we agree with and Wright does recommend a revision of what we call the split of issues so that more bargaining happens at the local table," she says, adding some resolutions like a greater accountability for government's mandate wouldn't apply to teachers.

But she says Clark and McRae's hopes for settling decades of fights between government and teachers in just six weeks will be hard work.

"I am worried about the six-week timeline; it's a very thorny issue, it's a complex issue. I'm hoping it's not going to be a very quick, shallow, and superficial process. It has to be very considered and reflective, and it has to address the issues that teachers have identified, " she says. "If it does not then... it is doomed to failure."

Lambert says teachers are hoping to start bargaining for their 2013 contracts early in the new year, with the BCTF bargaining committee meeting in two weeks to establish its bargaining mandate. The deadline for beginning teacher bargaining for the 2013 teacher contract is March 1, with the current contract expiring on June 30.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Education

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