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Dissenting Teacher: 'We Have to Own Part of This'

Still without a contract, one BC educator speaks out against union tactics.

Katie Hyslop 7 Aug 2014TheTyee.ca

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

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BC teacher Rob Erickson took the rare step of opposing his union's tactics on Twitter. Pencil photo via Shutterstock.

The British Columbian teachers' union and its employer are set to return to the bargaining table tomorrow after a near six-week hiatus.

But with no consensus on mediation, and government now promising parents $40/day in the case of a September strike, the two sides will be further apart at the table than when they left it.

Both the union and government maintain outward optimism for a negotiated deal before September, but parents are worried and frustrated about a longer strike, and teachers are angry about what many view as the government’s attempt to buy parents support instead of using money saved during the strike for public education.

A handful of teachers in the province, however, are frustrated with both sides of the bargaining table.

Langley teacher Rob Erickson has been critical on Twitter about his union's strategies and messaging since contract bargaining began almost 19 months ago. Although he voted in favour of the initial strike vote in early March, he later became concerned by what he saw as a rapid escalation of job action that put more pressure on teachers, students, and parents than it did on government.

"I really see no evidence that it applies pressure on our employer," he said. "I see no evidence that it gets us any closer to what we want in terms of wage increases, in terms of benefits, in terms of class size and composition."

As a large union with over 40,000 members, one BCTF representative said it's understandable that not everyone agrees with the union's tactics. But the union prefers that members address issues internally instead of going public, he said.

"Our view provincially is that [disagreements] should be done in private by those who are affected," said Glen Hansman, the union's first vice-president, adding decisions should be respected in public because they are made collectively by members. There are no union sanctions against teachers who speak out online, he said.

Erickson received blowback for his criticism from fellow teachers on Twitter, however, particularly in the #bced chat where real or perceived dissent against the union can garner heated response.

"Teachers from other schools have challenged my opinions, and have said the public forum isn't the place to express views contrary to what a public position is," said Erickson.

"I guess publicly we should just look like one big happy family, even if we don't all agree on a position."

Keeping dissent on the down low

Erickson is part of a minority: in the March 4 to 6 strike vote, 26,051 teachers voted in favour, while 3,250 voted against strike action. Numbers were similar in the June 9 to 11 vote, when 28,809 teachers voted yes to a full-scale walkout and 4,578 voted no.

But he isn't the only teacher dissenting from the union's position. An online petition created in early July for union members calls for an "alternative approach" to job action and bargaining, outlining many of the bargaining and union criticisms Erickson makes. Almost a month old, the petition has only 34 signatures.

The Tyee Solutions Society spoke with two other teachers who were critical of the union before finding Erickson, who was willing to go on the record. He's seen the same reluctance to go public among his colleagues.

"I know from talking to my own colleagues on the picket line -- not all, but there are many -- who were a little bit shocked that all of a sudden we were fully out [on strike in mid-June] and that was it for the year," he said.

Erickson isn't a fan of the government's positions or behaviour during bargaining, particularly its stance that education funding is higher than ever: "The government can get up and twist that and say they've increased funding every year, but [when] your costs outstrip your increases, the net result is you're not funding to the same level you were."

But he said the union has been similarly dishonest. Pointing to the last strike vote, when the results were revealed on June 11, he recalled union president Jim Iker telling media that the union would prefer a negotiated settlement to a walkout and would not rush into a full-scale strike. Yet the next day, the union gave its three work-day notice for the strike on June 17 if a deal wasn't reached before then.

Another issue is the Labour Relations Board ruling that found a 10 per cent pay deduction for striking teachers did not violate the essential services designation determining job actions the teachers were allowed to take. But it didn't rule on whether the teachers were indeed doing 10 per cent less work during administrative job action, which had been the government's justification for cutting their pay by 10 per cent. Instead, the LRB suggested the union and their employer use arbitration to settle that issue, but so far the union hasn't made a move in that direction.

Finally, Erickson said he doesn't understand why the union chose to pursue class size and class composition issues in bargaining when the B.C. Supreme Court ruling on the matter has been appealed by government -- a move he doesn't agree with but said is the government's right.

"Like it or not, you have to allow due process to carry out its course," he said. "The government is really under no obligation to do anything right now because they've appealed."

Union responds

Hansman said part of the reason the union prefers member concerns being aired internally rather than publicly is because members are often misinformed.

That's the stance he takes with the issues Erickson raises, adding that every decision made during the long bargaining process has been made by union members or a voting representative of their local. If members don't like something they can bring their own motion to the floor, though it may not pass, he said.

As for seeking arbitration over the 10 per cent wage deduction, Hansman said the union is still discussing the idea with its legal council and "weighing the pros and cons."

In terms of class size and composition, Hansman said the court case is retroactive, determining what would be in teachers' contracts today if the government hadn't stripped it out in 2002.

The stripped wording came from agreements made at the local board level, so the court case doesn't prevent the union and government from bargaining provincial class size and composition guidelines, which is what the union is asking for, he said.

Politics or sound policy?

When Erickson's local union president visited his school during the rotating strikes, Erickson challenged her reference to "Christy Clark's lockout."

"On that particular day we were striking, we weren't locked out, and I said, 'Why are we calling this what it isn't? We're on strike right now,'" he recalled. It didn't go well.

Erickson feels his union is making decisions based on politics rather than what's best for their members, pointing to the post-union career of former union presidents David Chudnovsky, who served as a New Democratic Party MLA; Jinny Sims, who sits as New Democratic Party MP; and Irene Lanzinger, current secretary-treasurer for the BC Federation of Labour.

On that point, Hansman countered that Susan Lambert, who served as union president from 2010 to 2013, and Neil Worboys, who served from 2002 to 2004, did not go into politics or other union jobs when they stepped down.

But the union doesn't bargain in a political vacuum, either. Whatever the politics of the current government, they will have an impact on the union and education in the province. And while some local unions have publicly supported or donated money to a political party, the provincial union has a policy against doing either.

Disagreement on tactics

When musing why it is that the teachers have such a hard time getting a contract with this government while other unions manage to seal the deal, Erickson added, "It's not just simply because the government won't deal with teachers. We have to own part of this."

Hansman said it's more complicated than that. First, it's hard to tell who the teachers' actual employer is. School boards insist it is them. The BC Public School Employers' Association was supposed to represent the boards, but its bargaining team and staff were both replaced by government appointees. The Finance and Education ministries also have influence at the bargaining table, as does the Office of the Premier.

Another issue is when teacher contracts are legislated -- as they were in 2002 and 2005, or are severely restricted in terms of what can be bargained, like in 2012 -- issues like class size and composition, preparation time, and bereavement leave aren't dealt with. Teachers fall behind in those areas, as compared to their labour peers. That leaves the next round of bargaining with a lot of ground to cover.

"If our membership had given us the objective for salary alone and was content to take something below inflation, then things could have been wrapped up [by now]," Hansman said.

Erickson acknowledges his views are in the minority. But if he had more say in bargaining, he would've kept the strike at phase one, because he thinks that would've had less impact on parents and students. He also would've kept the opening bargaining positions lower.

"You can say we need to come in ridiculously high because we know the other side is going to come in ridiculously low. But I think if you came out right away and said, 'This is what we think is a reasonable target and this is what we're going to stick to,' a majority of the public would get behind that."

But that's exactly what the union tried to do, Hansman said, when it and the former employers' association bargaining team came up with a bargaining mandate in 2013. Bargaining was respectful, the two sides listened to each other and considered proposals, and the only issue was nothing could be promised on the employer side until after the provincial election in May, he said.

Once Premier Christy Clark was re-elected, however, the 10-year deal mandate came down, the employer bargaining team was dismissed, and everything at the bargaining table changed.

"From our perspective, we came in on this round with a much narrower package in terms of the number of items [to bargain], and also a much lower starting position," Hansman said, adding at its current salary position the union will not catch up with any other province's teacher wages, though where it stands with regards to national teacher salaries depends on who you ask.

Neither side is at the bargaining table at the moment, with the union still holding out for mediation without government pre-conditions. But despite the government's assurances to the contrary, Erickson predicts teachers will be legislated back to work again by Oct. 14, one week after the legislature returns for the fall session.  [Tyee]

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