After four months of mulling over suggestions from education stakeholders, the B.C. government hopes to have found the solution to almost 20 years of adversarial teacher bargaining.
Government says its plan, "Working Together For Students: A Framework For Long Term Stability In Education," is the product of consultations between government and education stakeholders. Groups like the BC Teachers' Federation (BCTF) and the BC School Trustees Association (BCSTA) submitted their suggestions for improving bargaining and the government incorporated those into the framework.
At a press conference in Surrey yesterday morning, Premier Christy Clark repeated the hope she expressed last fall that the framework would make 10-year teacher agreements possible.
"Can we, working alongside with teachers, come up with an agreement that will ensure that students who are in Grade 2 today can have an entire school career that is free of labour disruption?" she asked.
But the BCTF was surprised by yesterday's announcement, with the union saying it wasn't consulted so much as asked to provide a brief on how it would improve bargaining.
BCTF president Susan Lambert said that in addition to violating court rulings and some of the government's own legislation, the timing of the report's release -- one day before the BCTF and the BC Public School Employers Association (BCPSEA) vote to ratify their own bargaining framework agreement -- is suspicious.
"They very well know -- because government has people on the board of BCPSEA -- that we're set to do the ratification this weekend," she told The Tyee.
"So on the eve of that, out comes this explosive proposal."
NDP questions legality of council
"Working Together" has four main elements: A $100-million Priority Education Investment Fund (PEIF) issued in the third year of an agreement for education policy issues teachers would like funded; an Education Policy Council, composed of teachers, trustees, and government, offering teachers input on policy for the first time; indexing teacher salaries to other public employee agreements; and a bargaining process that allows for strikes, employment conditions decided by the employer, and third-party help.
The BCTF has previously stated B.C.'s education system needs an extra $336 million per year in order to make up for $275 million in cuts from Bills 27/28 in 2002. For the union, an additional $100 million, on top of the annual $60 million for the Learning Improvement Fund (LIF), which was intended to help schools with vulnerable learners, just isn't going to cut it.
"This is a province where we are so short the national average staffing ratio, that it would take 6,800 teachers just to reach that average," said Lambert.
"Why would we be comforted by this dedicated funding for educational priorities, that may or may not address even staffing?"
Education Minister Don McRae says the dollar amount is open to negotiation, and both he and Clark hope the PEIF, in combination with the Education Policy Council, will give teachers the opportunity to affect education policy without bringing it up at the bargaining table.
Some of the suggested uses McRae listed included funding a mentorship program for young teachers, or extra funds for special needs services, which is what the LIF was supposed to help with.
Even Bill 22, which introduced the LIF and a promise to return class size and composition to the bargaining table, is still open for discussion between government and the BCTF if the union wants it, said McRae.
"Working Together" suggests issues like class size and composition could be funded by the PEIF, after being discussed by the Council. But B.C. New Democratic Party education critic Robin Austin says moving working conditions such as class size and composition to discussion by the Education Planning Council could be illegal.
"To try and solve the whole issue of class size and composition by taking a large amount of resources and taking it outside of the bargaining process and put to a committee, frankly, I don't think would hold much under the law," he told The Tyee.
"Clearly, Justice (Susan Griffin) who ruled last year on Bills 27 and 28 said it's up to the teachers to have the right to bargain teaching and learning conditions."
'Average of net zero is zero': Lambert
Under the government's proposal, salary increases are indexed to the public sector agreements for nurses, college faculty, and government employees. If the indexing started 10 years ago, teachers' salaries would have increased by an average of two per cent, as opposed to the 1.8 per cent average teachers have received, Clark said.
"Teachers would be farther ahead today, and they would be further ahead without all the heartache that's gone on with all the labour disruptions that we've seen in the last decade," she said.
But during teacher contract negotiations last January, the BCTF tabled a much higher wage increase: three per cent in the first year, and six per cent in the second and third years. At the time they said that would index salaries to the cost of living allowance.
"Net zero amounts to a pay cut, while a cost of living adjustment is essentially a wage freeze, and we're willing to accept a wage freeze in year one of this collective agreement," Lambert told The Tyee at the time, adding their bargaining platform would cost $300 million per year.
Lambert said in a press release issued yesterday afternoon that removing teachers' right to bargain their salaries was unfair. The current contract agreements the teachers would see themselves indexed to, she added, are net zero.
"The average of net zero is zero," she said.
BC School Trustee Association president Michael McEvoy says that while he does like some of the suggestions in the government's framework, he is concerned about where the money for an extra $100-million fund will come from.
"We would hope that the money would be incremental; that is it would be in addition to what's in the budget now, and it won't be taken out of existing funds. Because boards, as it is now, are having significant challenges meeting the educational needs in our district," he said.
In an emailed statement to The Tyee, a ministry of education spokesperson said both the fund and a teacher salary increase would depend on a sunnier economic future.
"In the future, as fiscal conditions improve and the student population begins to grow again, we can expect similar patterns of funding growth over time. This is why the proposal is based on wage indexing, and why the proposed $100-million Priority Education Investment Fund would first be available in the third year of a 10-year agreement," read the statement.
"If a 10-year agreement [wage indexing] cannot be achieved, BCPSEA will be prepared to negotiate under the existing Cooperative Gains Mandate. The net-zero mandate has expired."
The framework also hinted at recognizing teachers' right to strike, an issue addressed by the BCTF in their report to government on improving bargaining, hand delivered to Minister McRae in December. Other stakeholder submissions can be read here.
BCTF, BCPSEA vote this weekend
The BCTF-BCPSEA framework agreement that will be voted on this weekend also has four elements: begin bargaining on Feb. 4, set a strict timeline for bargaining, begin with a third party facilitator right away, and move some items from the provincial bargaining table to the local table, including post and fill and transfer and recall requirements.
BCPSEA told The Tyee they have no official response to government's framework and were still reviewing it. However, they don't believe it will affect ratification of their agreement with the teachers' union.
"The timelines are a little bit different. The ministry's proposal is going to be implemented, they said, after the election," said Mel Joy, BCPSEA chair.
"If this is going to be implemented, we're going to have to try to meld the two and then see where we'll go from then."
Lambert said the BCTF is recommending its members ratify the agreement, and if BCPSEA also ratifies bargaining will begin next month.
Austin said the goal of improving relations with the teachers is one his party supports. But the breakdown of trust between the Liberal government and teachers means any new government would need to do outreach to create a long-term dialogue with teachers, not a call for submissions without feedback like this framework has been.
"I would hope that that resetting of that relationship would help in any future bargaining," he said.
Government said this is just the first step, and negotiations will continue with all stakeholders, including the BCTF, BCPSEA, the BC School Trustees Association, and the BC Principals and Vice Principals Association. Nothing is likely to be completed before the election in just over three months.
"We need to take the time to ensure the final product is a product of input, and no one will benefit from trying to rush it through. We're trying to get an agreement here, we're not trying to get a decision by government," Clark said.
Lambert said the BCTF will meet with government if asked. But it won't make a difference if this framework is what government wants to work with.
"What this does, in essence, is it asks teachers to give up critical bargaining rights, the right to bargain their working conditions, the right to bargain their salary and benefits, give up the rights to do those, in return for a 10-year collective agreement. What would be attractive for teachers in that?" asked Lambert.
"This proposal is so irrelevant, because it is so unacceptable, that it will probably just fade away."
Despite no knowledge of other provinces managing to pull off a 10-year teacher contract, and despite the traditionally hostile relationship between the BCTF and successive governments, McRae remains optimistic.
"What I'm thinking is, in this province, wouldn't it be nice if we were to set a foundation for good teacher bargaining across the country?" he said.
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