It's been a year since British Columbian teachers saw their contracts expire, and the union and its employer are closer to a deal when it comes to wages, but far apart when it comes to class size and composition and staffing levels.
The B.C. Teachers' Federation has tabled an eight per cent wage increase over five years, an annual increase equal to the anticipated Gross Domestic Product minus the actual GDP, and $5,000 signing bonus if a deal is reached by June 30. Teachers are also asking for a return to the class size and composition rules last seen in 2001, and an increase in the number of specialty teachers like counsellors and teacher librarians hired in B.C. districts.
The B.C. Public School Employers' Association is proposing a seven per cent wage increase over six years, or a 8.25 per cent increase over seven years, plus a $1,200 signing bonus on ratification. Class size, as imposed by the government through 2012's Education Improvement Act, would remain the same under the employers' terms. So far, they have refused to put a cap on the number of special needs students per class, or hire as many specialty teachers as the union wants.
Efforts to pressure each other into making concessions have had little effect. On May 26, the employer began a partial "lockout" restricting the hours and work teachers can do at school, and docking their pay 10 per cent for as long as teachers continued rotating walkouts. Rotating walkouts lasted three weeks, escalating to an ongoing province-wide strike on June 17.
All exams except for provincials have been cancelled and schools remain closed. If a deal isn't reached by June 30, the union promises to picket summer schools.
Collective bargaining between the B.C. government and the union has a dizzying and important history. The troubles began under the Social Credit government of the 1980s and continued under the New Democratic Party government of the 1990s, but the issue has become much more heated since the current BC Liberal government came to power in 2001. Teachers haven't forgotten any of it.
Looking back at 13 years of quarrelling, one may find hints to where the current bargaining dispute is headed. If you don't remember every strike vote or court case, this refresher is for you.
In the beginning, there were Bills 27/28
Battles between the teachers and the province were commonplace by 2001; in fact, there hasn't been a negotiated teachers' contract since 1996. During the 2001 election campaign, the BC Liberals raised the union's hackles before it even formed government by promising to make education an essential service, outlawing any job action that disrupted classes, and discussing the importance of "flexibility" with regards to class size and composition.
Before the spring election, the union's then-president David Chudnovksy wrote a letter to future premier Gordon Campbell that warned him not to mess with the ongoing contract negotiations by introducing either measure.
But by August, the newly-elected government made education an essential service and teachers couldn't strike if it disrupted kindergarten to Grade 12 education, and on Jan. 27, 2002 the government legislated the contract by passing Bill 27: the Education Services Collective Agreement Act and Bill 28: the Public Education Flexibility and Choice Act.
The laws ended agreements between local unions and school districts regarding work hours, seniority and leave; stripped class size and composition levels and removed the right to negotiate them in the future; and erased teacher-to-student ratios for specialist teachers like counsellors, teacher librarians, and special needs teachers. Then, after freezing education funding for three years, the government forced school districts to fund teacher salary increases.
The union brought both pieces of legislation to the International Labour Organization, a body of the United Nations that advises on public labour disputes, which non-bindingly ruled against the legislation in 2003, and again in 2004 and 2006. The union also took the government to provincial court for the first time in 2004 over the contract stripping, and the court ordered the previously-negotiated contracts be restored.
Defying teachers, courts and the United Nations, the B.C. government responded with Bill 19: The Education Services Collective Agreement Act, which specifically enabled the contract stripping. The bill told the union and school boards the court decision did not make it okay for them to negotiate anything Bill 28 removed, including class size and composition and staffing levels.
The Vince Ready years
Contracts expired again on June 30, 2004, but the sides remained far apart at the bargaining table.
Almost a year of fruitless debate passed until the teachers took a strike vote in September 2005, with 88.4 per cent in favour of job action. They began withdrawing services, but in early October the Labour Relations Board blocked the escalation from becoming a full-blown strike because of education's essential services designation.
The government legislated another teacher contract with the passing of the Teachers' Collective Agreement Act on Oct. 6, 2005, extending the 2001-2004 contract until June 30, 2006. It also announced the appointment of Vince Ready as industrial inquiry commissioner to recommend a new bargaining structure.
Despite the Labour Relations Board ruling, the union, under then-president Jinny Sims, launched a full-scale strike in reaction to the legislated contract. The government took the teachers to B.C. Supreme Court, which declared teachers in contempt of court. The union held a two-week illegal strike until Oct. 21, when the court fined it $500,000.
The government then called Ready away from his reporting duties and appointed him as a facilitator between the teachers and the government. He recommended a grid that harmonized teacher salaries across districts, improved recruitment and retention of teachers-on-call, increased teacher representation at provincial learning roundtables, and increased funding for, and enforcement of, class sizes as set by the government. The teachers voted 77 per cent in favour of accepting the recommendations.
A tradition of legislated contracts broken
Bargaining began again in April 2006 with facilitator Irene Holden, recommended by Ready. In May, the government introduced Bill 33: Education (Learning Enhancement) Statutes Amendment Act, which again hiked class sizes. It increased class size limits for Grades 4 through 7 to 30 students from 28.
Then-finance minister Carole Taylor offered teachers $3,700 each if the union signed an agreement before June 30. But the teachers wanted a 19 per cent salary increase over three years, while the government offered a 10 per cent increase over four years.
In early June, the teachers took a strike vote, which passed by 85.2 per cent. The union also accused its employer of bargaining in "bad faith," but the Labour Relations Board dismissed the claim.
Then, surprising everyone, the union and government negotiated a collective agreement, breaking a decade-long tradition of legislated contracts, at 10:45 p.m. on June 30, 2006. The agreement gave teachers a 16 per cent salary increase over five years, a $4,000 signing bonus, and extra funds for attracting and retaining teachers to more rural districts.
In February 2011, former education minister Christy Clark took the reins as leader of the provincial Liberals, and became B.C.'s premier. Although collective bargaining began the following month, a B.C. Supreme Court ruling on Bills 27 and 28, which Clark introduced as minister in 2002, quickly sidelined negotiations.
Justice Susan Griffin found sections of Bill 28 unconstitutional because they "interfered with the process of collective bargaining by prohibiting bargaining on class size and composition, as well as ripping up previous agreements between local unions and school districts on the matter." Griffin gave the government one year to produce a remedy.
The union, under then-president Susan Lambert, argued the best option was to allow class size and composition bargaining and restore the $275 million [in 2002 dollars] to annual education funding the union said was cut with the passing of Bills 27 and 28.
The government returned with the Class Organizing Fund: $165 million over three years, followed by $75 million annually in subsequent years, to help deal with class size and composition issues. The teachers rejected the offer.
The union then asked Justice Griffin to clarify her ruling to help settle the dispute, but she refused, sending everyone back to negotiations.
The two sides were at an impasse by spring 2011, with the government seeking a net-zero contract, meaning any salary increases would be funded by cuts made elsewhere.
The union took a strike vote in late June, which passed with over 90 per cent of votes in favour. Job action began in the fall with teachers refusing to do administrative work such as meeting with principals, supervising students outside of class or writing report cards.
In November, the government called off the Bill 28 talks.
In February 2012, it appointed Trevor Hughes, a deputy minister, as a fact finder to determine whether a negotiated settlement between the two sides could be reached.
Before Hughes' could release his report -- which found a negotiated settlement "very unlikely" -- the government was talking about legislating teachers back to work. The union gained approval from the Labour Relations Board to walk out for three days, followed by walkouts once every five school days.
In mid-March, the government passed Bill 22: The Education Improvement Act, introducing a "cooling off period" before teachers were to return to the bargaining table with a government-appointed mediator. Walkouts were banned, with fines of up to $1.3 million per day for the union if they occurred.
The bill also prevented teachers from negotiating class size and composition until after a contract was signed on June 30; until then, government set class size limits. Bill 22 also took the government's previously-suggested Class Organizing Fund of $165 million over three years, followed by an annual $75 million, to help with class size and composition issues and renamed it the Learning Improvement Fund.
The province appointed Charles Jago, former president of the University of Northern British Columbia and donor to the BC Liberal Party, as mediator. Teachers took the government back to court, this time over Bill 22, and voted on job action, again withdrawing voluntary services like supervising extracurricular activities.
Despite hostility on both sides, the union voted to accept a one-year contract offer three days before the June 30 deadline. The contract didn't include salary increases, but did increase bereavement leave, unpaid discretionary leave, and unpaid family leave. It was the third negotiated contract since 1996, the second under a Liberal government.
The '10-year deal' is born
Before bargaining began again in 2013, Premier Clark and then-education minister Don McRae announced six weeks of consultation in fall 2012 to fix the process. Clark also introduced the idea of a 10-year teacher contract; the union was wary of a long-term deal.
The government released its bargaining proposal in January, promising to index teacher salaries to that of other public employees; a $100-million Priority Education Investment Fund released in the third year of a contract to address education issues determined with input from the union and trustees; and a bargaining process that allows for strikes, but keeps class size and composition under the employer's control.
Teachers dismissed it as "irrelevant" and proceeded to create their own framework with the BC Public School Employers' Association, the bargaining agent for public school employers' since 1993.
Meanwhile, on May 14, 2013 a provincial election widely expected to go in the New Democratic Party's favour instead returned another victory to Clark's Liberals.
The spring campaign kept bargaining out of the news until late May, when deputy education minister James Gorman sent the union and the employers' association a letter informing them of the government's desire for a 10-year teacher contract by June 30.
Five days before the deadline, however, the government paused bargaining, appointed freelance negotiator Peter Cameron as its spokesperson on bargaining but not as lead negotiator, and threw out the bargaining mandate the union and employers' association had been bargaining under since February.
Teachers held a vote the next day, with 96 per cent against the bargaining delay.
No bargaining took place in the summer months, but in August the government appointed Michael Marchbank, CEO of the Health Employers Association of BC, as the interim public administrator for the employers' association, dismissing the board of directors. Education Minister Peter Fassbender's reason for dismissal was because teachers requested more direct negotiations with the government, but the union denied asking for the dismissal.
Talks remained on hold until November so the union and the government could appear in court regarding Bill 22, which was supposed to remedy Bill 28, found unconstitutional for stripping teachers' contracts of class size and composition levels and preventing them from bargaining those working conditions in the future. Bill 22 passed in spring 2012, banned teacher walkouts, assigned class sizes, and introduced the $165-million Learning Improvement Fund.
In January 2014, the court ruled in favour of the union, criticizing government for reusing parts of Bill 28 regarding class size and composition bargaining rights the court previously deemed unconstitutional in Bill 22. Justice Griffin also said the government bargained in "bad faith" in 2012 by attempting to force a teacher strike and push public opinion in favour of Bill 22. Griffin ordered government to restore class size and composition negotiation rights to teachers and pay the union $2 million.
The union interpreted the ruling as restoring class size and composition levels to 2001. Government disagreed, filed an appeal and asked the court if it could wait until the appeal is heard before making any changes to class size or composition, claiming it would disrupt students and cost districts over $1 billion. The court granted the "stay" and the appeal will be heard in October.
What's happening now
Teachers were unhappy with the government's bargaining proposals, claiming it refused to bargain class size and composition, expected a 10-year deal and asked for two more years without salary increases. Teachers haven't had a wage increase since 2010.
Between March 4 and 6, the teachers held a strike vote that passed with 89 per cent in favour of a three-step job action plan. The first step would withdraw administrative services, with the promise not to disrupt classes. The second stage would entail a series of one-day walkouts. The final stage was another vote for a full-scale walk-out.
Teachers also revealed their salary demands, asking for an increase comparable to colleagues across Canada and indexed to cost of living. The government said that would cost over $1 billion.
Former employers' association negotiator Melanie Joy, who helped bargain the teacher contract in 2012, wrote a letter to her local paper on March 5 agreeing the government engaged in "bad faith" bargaining at the time.
On April 17, the union issued a 72-hour strike notice for stage one of its strike action. Beginning April 22, teachers refused to meet with or receive and send written or electronic communication with administrators. They also refused to supervise students outside of class time, leading to the cancellation of recess in at least 12 of the province's 60 school districts. Unlike the 2012 strike action, however, teachers continued to take part in voluntary extracurricular activities and write report cards.
On April 30, the employers' association responded by informing the union it will be billed approximately $5 million for teachers' health and welfare insurance premiums for the month of June if a negotiated settlement isn't reached by June 30. A teachers' administrative day on June 27 would also be cancelled if a deal isn't made. The employers' association vowed to pay back the union if a deal is reached in time.
The teachers called the move illegal, bringing the issue to the Labour Relations Board for review. The employers' association abandoned the issues two weeks later, saying it would take too long for the board to rule on the issue.
On April 30, the teachers presented a new wage proposal of 10.75 per cent plus 2.75 per cent cost of living over four years, which they said is lower than their previous offer.
On May 15, the government finally gave in to teacher demands and abandoned the 10-year deal. Instead, the ministry proposed a six-year deal with a 7.25 per cent wage increase and a one-time signing bonus of $1,200 for full-time teachers, pro-rated for part-time and on-call teachers. The bonus would only apply if teachers signed a contract by June 30.
After the morning bargaining session on May 16, government bargaining spokesperson Cameron let the other shoe drop, announcing that afternoon teachers' pay would be docked five per cent until a deal is signed to make up for work not being done during stage one of the strike.
In addition to the cancellation of a June 27 administrative day, secondary school classes for June 25 and June 26 would also be cancelled if a contract isn't reached by then.
The union promised to bring the decision to the Labour Relations Board, but Cameron said the employers' association didn't need to wait for their ruling: "The disincentives that we are putting in place are all aimed at getting a deal," he said, adding the association may increase the pay docking to 10 per cent if teachers moved to stage two of strike action.
Despite the promise to raise the pay deductions, on May 20 the teachers announced an escalation of stage two of the job action, rotating strikes beginning May 26.
On June 3, the teachers changed their proposals again, asking for 9.75 per cent plus 2.25 cost of living increase, as well as a reduction in the proposed learning assistance and special education teacher ratios. Not seeing the same movement from the employers' association, the union announced the third phase of the ongoing strike: another member vote on June 9 to 10, this time on a province-wide walkout.
Teachers voted 86 per cent in favour of a strike.
After a June 6 application from the employers' association, the Labour Relations Board ruled June 11 that striking teachers must facilitate and mark Grade 10-12 provincial exams, have final Grade 12 marks in by June 20, and finish designations for students with special needs.
Teachers offered new proposals June 12, reducing their wage demands to eight per cent over five years, plus an annual increase equaling the sum of the proposed Gross Domestic Product minus the actual Gross Domestic Product. But they also requested a $5,000 signing bonus.
They put a hold on class size and composition demands until the B.C. Court of Appeal ruling, proposing instead two separate funds to handle oversized classes and any civil suits teachers bring against government for exceeding class sizes.
On June 14, the employers' association countered with seven per cent over six years or 8.25 per cent over seven years, and an "Economic Stability Dividend" similar to the union's Gross Domestic Product formula. The association said seven per cent isn't less than its previous offer, because 0.75 per cent of the 7.25 per cent would have come from cuts elsewhere in the teacher contract.
It also proposed Learning Improvement Fund as part of the contract, fully devoted to class size and composition issues.
The union remained unimpressed and began a full-scale walkout June 17, effectively shutting down schools for the summer. On June 20, the teachers requested a mediator, sparking facilitator Mark Brown's resignation from the bargaining table. The union suggested former union-government mediator Vince Ready, but Ready was unavailable. The employers' association accepted mediation but suggested it's part of a union public relations campaign.
Anxiety among school board trustees over summer school prompted the employers' association to request the Labour Relations Board amend the essential services ruling to include teaching remedial summer school courses, and at the five year-round elementary schools and youth medical and correctional facilities.
The next day, June 25, the union announced it will picket outside of summer schools -- and summer schools only -- if a deal isn't reached by June 30. The union said it's still committed to reaching a deal by then.
Now you're up to speed. You can read the latest bargaining proposals from the union and the government here.