'We Come Across as Doofuses': Biz Owner

Intervening in teachers' court case makes biz coalition look anti-education, worries member.

By Andrew MacLeod 6 Oct 2014 |

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

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Mark von Schellwitz, Chair of the Coalition of BC Businesses.

The Coalition of British Columbia Businesses, which intends to represent business and taxpayer interests in the court case between the B.C. Teachers' Federation and the government, includes a huge number of businesses that likely don't realize what's being done in their name.

That's the assessment of Dan Gunn, the founder of Allies for B.C. Public Education, a group that's sprung up to draw attention to the coalition's intervention in the court case. "We strongly believe they're misrepresenting their members," he said. "It's a values thing. Public education is important to all of us."

The coalition, which one former member describes as a "loose group" is an umbrella group of other umbrella groups. Its members include organizations like Restaurants Canada, the BC Hotel Association and the Alliance of Beverage Licensees, each of which counts its own members in the hundreds or thousands.

Another coalition member, the B.C. Chamber of Commerce, adds another layer of umbrellas with a membership list that includes the Vancouver Board of Trade and over 100 local chambers in every corner of the province, from Sidney to Fort St. John and Kitimat to Cranbrook. And go2hr includes organizations like Tourism Vancouver, Tourism Vancouver Island, the Sport Fishing Institute of BC and Destination BC.

The coalition also includes the Building Owners and Managers Association of British Columbia, the Building Supply Industry Association of BC, the Canadian Home Builders Association of British Columbia, the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association, the Insurance Brokers Association of B.C., and the New Car Dealers Association of BC.

In short, just about any business you can think of in the province is likely a member of the coalition through one or more industry groups. Or as the coalition's own website puts it, "The Coalition is made up of organizations that collectively represent over 50,000 small and medium-sized businesses active in all sectors of B.C.’s diverse economy in communities throughout the province."

'We come across as doofuses'

Jamie Boulding, the president of Strathcona Park Lodge, figures his family's business belongs to at least three of the CBCB's member groups, including the local chamber of commerce, Tourism Vancouver Island and the BC Hotel Association.

"I'm sure they multiply count everybody," said Boulding, questioning the CBCB's claim to represent 50,000 businesses.

Businesses join such groups for practical reasons like getting lower credit card rates, he said, adding it would be "crazy" not to join. "You have to be members of these big organizations."

That does not mean that individual business owners support the coalition's political direction, he said, and many oppose the organization's involvement in the court case. "I don't think anyone has any idea what's going on, the people who are supposedly supporting this," he said. "I have no confidence any business people in the province have any idea what's going on behind the scenes."

A small group is using the CBCB as a platform for their agenda, he said. "They'd like a private model for everything," he said.

He said he doesn't believe school funding is out of control and he's worried that the province's business community will seem like it's against public education. "We're coming across as a bunch of doofuses who are anti-education."

The BCTF has a legitimate beef and it seems crazy that business owners would support the government ripping up contracts, Boulding said. "They're just doing it because the Liberals want them to," he said. "We've got to be supporting our teachers."

Perspective welcome

The CBCB membership became an issue in early July when the organization announced it would apply to intervene in the court case between the B.C. Teachers' Federation and the provincial government over the right of the union to include class size and composition in its contract negotiations.

The BCTF has won two earlier rounds, but it is now headed to the B.C. Court of Appeal with hearings scheduled for October and a decision expected possibly not until the new year.

The court approved the coalition's application to intervene in mid-September, noting the group would "provide the perspective of small and medium-sized business interests in the private sector, and its viewpoint may be of assistance to the Court in determining the issues in the appeal."

In an update on its website, the coalition said it "is not taking on teachers, or getting into the teachers strike." Teachers are doing a good job and the province's education system compares well internationally, it said.

"However the Coalition is concerned that the courts have overstepped their scope," the update continued. "The Coalition has been granted intervener status to ensure that the appeal case includes a business / taxpayer perspective. The Coalition has done this on a number of labour relations legal cases in the past."

The coalition's mission is to be "an advocate and voice for small and medium sized businesses on labour and employment issues in British Columbia."

According to its website, employment laws and practices should ensure a minimum level of employee protection, but should be "realistic", "flexible" and "respect individual choices." While the positions are not explicitly anti-union, they are clearly from the employers' perspective.

Campaign building

Allies for BC Public Education formed a few weeks ago to pressure the coalition to withdraw from the court case. It describes itself as "a volunteer-run, grassroots organization made up of parents, school teachers, school support staff, business owners and concerned British Columbians who believe that a world class public education system is critical for the success of British Columbia's students."

Gunn, who trained as a mechanical engineer and has worked for a variety of companies, said few businesses are likely to believe that the government should be allowed to break contracts. Nor is the coalition's assertion that public education is unaffordable likely to be widely shared, he said.

"We have a first world economy," he said, adding that we can afford a high quality education system. "Business and a world class public education system are not mutually exclusive. They both need each other."

There has already been some success getting businesses to distance themselves from the coalition. The Support for BC Teachers Facebook page includes a note from Andrew Klukas, the president of the Western Convenience Stores Association saying his original understanding was the coalition's application "would not represent a position on the dispute" and that he'd asked the coalition to remove its application.

The WCSA is no longer a member of the coalition, having allowed its membership to lapse at the end of June, Klukas said in a phone interview. The decision had to do with other issues and the WCSA has no position at all on the dispute between the BCTF and the province, he said.

Janet Steffenhaggen reported in a September article in Business in Vancouver that White Spot, a member of coalition member Restaurants Canada, had posted its position on Facebook: "We want our valued guests to know that White Spot has not had -- and will not have -- any involvement in the Coalition of BC Business's application for intervener status in the upcoming appeal… These are complex and difficult issues that are far beyond our scope. The focus of White Spot staff and management remains on running our award-winning restaurants."

And the Oak Bay Beach Hotel in the Capital Region wrote, "As a hotel company, we take no position in the teachers' dispute with their employer except to say that we hope it is settled soon."

Messages to representatives of the CBCB went unreturned by publication time. Nor did a representative of the BCTF, which has reportedly said it is uninvolved in the campaign against the CBCB, return messages.  [Tyee]

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