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Everything You Need to Know about This Round of Teacher Bargaining

The story so far, at least in this chapter of a 10-year saga.

Katie Hyslop 5 Sep 2014TheTyee.ca

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

[Author's note: This article provides a rundown of the 2013/2014 contract negotiations for B.C. teachers. A full account of the bargaining history between the BC Teachers' Federation and the BC Public School Employers' Association -- and provincial government -- can be found here.]

It's been 10 weeks since the teachers' union and its employer failed to meet the June 30 deadline for a negotiated teachers' contract. Since that time, the bargaining teams met once, and when schools failed to open Sept. 2 because teachers remained on strike, both sides publicly blamed each other.

Since June, mediators Justice Stephen Kelleher and Vince Ready have been brought into talks. Kelleher left in July after declaring both sides were too far apart to reach a negotiated deal, a determination Ready echoed although he has remained a mediator. Premier Christy Clark, long silent, weighed in this week by repeating Education Minister Peter Fassbender's message that teachers' salary and benefit demands stand in the way of a deal.

Clark hasn't responded to the union's request for a face-to-face meeting, however, nor has the government made any significant concessions since June when it proposed a six-year contract -- which could go to seven -- instead of the 10-year contract it pursued for over a year.

The union, on the other hand, increased its suggested contract length to five years from four, dropped its salary and benefit demands several times, as well as its class size and composition formulas, and most recently cut a proposed $225-million fund to $100 million annually for retroactive grievances over the stripping of working condition language from contracts in 2002.

While both sides claim they're eager to get back to the bargaining table, neither show any desire to make the changes their opponents demand to get them back there. It's the most recent in a long line of stalemates marking the current bargaining session, which began Feb. 2013.

If you find yourself racking your brain to remember either side's initial proposal, when the 10-year deal was initially proposed and later dropped, or how many rulings the Labour Relations Board has made and what they mean, this explainer is for you.

In the beginning, there was a bargaining framework

Before bargaining started, 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 Jan. 2013, 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 employer 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 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 in 2002 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 Jan. 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 the government 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 those of 2001. The 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.

Strikes start

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 2011.

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, and a June 27 teachers' administrative day would also be cancelled. 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 idea 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 caved 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.

'Stage two'

After the morning bargaining session on May 16, government bargaining spokesperson Cameron let the other shoe drop, announcing that afternoon that teacher 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 wasn'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. The same day the walk-outs begin, the employers' association starts 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.

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.

Bargaining deadline expires

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 $225-million 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, 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 he 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 would picket outside of summer schools -- and summer schools only -- if a deal wasn't reached by June 30. On June 27, the Labour Relations Board ruled teaching at the five year-round schools and remedial summer school programs was mandatory, but only if the remedial courses couldn't be offered to students in the regular school year. Because this ruled out the majority of summer school courses, most districts cancelled their summer programs.

Teachers and their employer fail to reach a negotiated settlement by the June 30 deadline. As talks expire so too did the government's offer of a $1,200 signing bonus for every full-time teacher.

$40 a day and a website

While negotiations were still in the final stretch, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Kelleher met with both sides for exploratory talks on whether his services as a mediator could help reach a deal. But on July 2 Kelleher left after announcing the parties were too far apart.

On July 31, Finance Minister Mike de Jong announced the government's plan to subsidize childcare for kids 12 and under to the tune of $40 per day if the strike wasn't over by the time school starts Sept. 2. The almost $12-million daily cost would come from the money school districts save by not paying teachers during a fall strike. The union accused government of trying to bribe parents and prolong the strike instead of promising teachers more money at the bargaining table.

Bargaining was put on hold until Aug. 8 when both sides returned to the table for the first time since June 30. The following week the union and the employers' association issued a joint press release announcing Ready was now available to mediate and would be engage in exploratory talks with both sides. As a condition of his involvement, both sides agreed to stop talking to the media.

Three days later on Aug. 18, the government launched BCParentInfo.ca to inform parents how to obtain their subsidy, paid out after the strike ends. The website is part of a $335,000 government media campaign to promote the strategy, and includes public education achievement statistics and news releases about successfully negotiated public sector agreements. The union accused the government of using the website to break the media blackout.

Almost there...

The day before Labour Day, the government held a press conference announcing Ready had determined the two sides were too far apart to reach a deal.

That same day, the teachers announced they cut $125 million from their requested $225-million fund to retroactively cover grievances regarding the illegal stripping of class size and composition language from their contracts in 2002. However, they still want a $5,000 signing bonus to make up for the three years they've been without a raise. Iker said this puts teachers and government $300 million apart, or the equivalent of $3 per student.

The union also revealed the government promised to drop E. 81, a clause allowing either side to rip up a negotiated collective agreement if they disagreed with the B.C. Court of Appeal's future decision on class size and composition language in the contract.

But it kept E. 80, proposing the current class size limits set in the School Act become part of teachers' contracts, as would the $75-million annual Learning Improvement Fund, of which $60 million would go towards teachers' issues with the size and composition of their classes. The other $15 million has been earmarked for CUPE support workers.

Iker called on Premier Clark to meet face to face with him as she met with truckers during the four-week Port Metro Vancouver strike in March. But Clark used Facebook to break her silence instead, reposting on Sept. 2 a letter from Education Minister Fassbender that blamed teachers unwillingness to come down on salary and benefit proposals.

A Clark-Fassbender press conference the following day repeated that message, adding until the teachers reduced the cost of their proposals, including "unlimited massage" benefits and an extra day off for secondary school teachers, negotiators couldn't deal with class composition, what she called "most vital to the future of education in British Columbia."

She also asked teachers to return to work immediately, but in a union press conference that afternoon, Iker said he didn't trust government to bargain without the pressure of a strike. He called on the employer to bring more money to the table, and said Clark was misinformed about the union's benefit proposals: an initial $3,000 massage coverage proposal for union members in chronic pain was dropped to a maximum of $700, and a requested additional preparation day for secondary teachers, not a day off, had also been dropped.

Iker added teachers couldn't return to work even if they wanted to because of the ongoing lock out, even though the employers' association told the union in August it would drop the lockout if teachers returned to work, a sentiment repeated in a Sept. 4 letter to Iker from the employer.

Now you're up to speed. You can read the latest bargaining proposals from the union and the government here.  [Tyee]

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