In contrast to the labour strife in Ontario, the tentative deal between the BC Teachers’ Federation and the provincial government is “good news all around,” says retired labour journalist and historian Rod Mickleburgh.
If BC Teachers’ Federation members vote in favour of the collective agreement, it would be the second negotiated teachers’ contract under the current NDP government. Voting takes place from Nov. 28 to 30.*
“They take bargaining very, very seriously and they have a lot of issues to deal with,” Mickleburgh said of the teachers’ union.
“It’s not slam dunk bargaining, it’s slow, meticulous, arguing over the smallest little things — that’s not meant critically, that’s the way teacher negotiations are. It’s a major factor for them.”
While neither the union nor the BC Public School Employers' Association, the province’s bargaining arm, are releasing specifics of the deal before teachers vote on it next week, some of its details were leaked in late October.
In an interview with The Tyee, BC Teachers’ Federation president Clint Johnston confirmed teachers are being offered a three-year deal with annual salary bumps; improvements to benefits, especially around mental health supports; help attracting Indigenous teachers, Black teachers and teachers of colour; and more funding for professional development.
“I think that we managed to get the employer to be flexible enough with their funding that we are going to give some security against these uncertain inflationary times,” Johnston said.
The salary increases the first tier of a 10- to 11-tier salary grid for teachers by $427 this year. While teacher salary grids vary across the province’s 60 school districts, by the time the agreement expires on June 30, 2025, new teachers would see their wages increase by roughly $6,000 to $8,500 over their current rate.
Teacher wages overall would increase by 3.24 per cent in 2022–23, 5.5 to 6.75 per cent in 2023–24, and two to three per cent in 2024–25.
According to the union, the salary increases will move B.C. from having some of the lowest salaries for teachers in the country to some of the highest, with the top earning teachers making anywhere from $10,000 to $13,500 more by 2025.
Mickleburgh says the salary offers are the most significant he’s seen for the teachers’ union since their negotiated contract in 2006.
“They’ve barely kept pace with inflation, if not fallen below it over the years,” he said. “As the teachers have rightly pointed out, their salaries have certainly fallen below those of teachers in Ontario and Alberta, specifically.”
Leanne Bowes, the employers’ association spokesperson, declined to comment on any of the specifics of the tentative agreement. But she said the 47 bargaining sessions the BCPSEA held with the teachers’ union were “thoughtful” and that each party was “respectful” of the other’s position.
“Which we were very thankful for,” Bowes said. “We saw it as a positive tone at the table.”
The tentative deal fits within the government’s Shared Recovery Mandate, the 2022 bargaining mandate governing all public sector unions negotiating with the government this year.
The BC General Employees' Union ratified their recent agreement with the province under the same model. As one of the largest public sector unions in the province, the BCGEU’s agreement was a hurdle cleared for labour peace in the province, says Mickleburgh.
“The BCGEU vote was unbelievably close. It only went through by 53 per cent, which is really quite astonishing, and it showed that a lot of the members of the BCGEU, who were the first to settle, expected more with inflation raging around six to seven per cent,” he said.
“But it did go through, and once that’s set, the other unions aren’t going to break it.”
Bargaining under the same mandate means that every public sector union will essentially be offered the same deal in terms of costs to their employer. If a public sector union did negotiate a better deal after other unions negotiated theirs, a “me too” clause on the settled deals would mean the government would have to provide the better deal to every public sector union.
“It would be unrealistic for any union to believe that they’re going to depart from the pattern in the public sector,” said Charles Ungerleider, University of British Columbia professor emeritus and former B.C. deputy minister of education under the NDP in the 1990s. If teachers vote in favour of their deal, it will be “very significant,” he added.
“What you want is solidarity across the public sector, because that strengthens collective bargaining,” Ungerleider said.
“You've got to show that collective bargaining works.”
Working conditions largely unchanged
While salary negotiations went well, discussions around working conditions did not seem to see much movement.
Beyond an extra 10 minutes of weekly prep time for elementary school teachers, neither party could reach an agreement on improving teachers’ working conditions.
In particular, the contract language restored to teacher contracts in 2017 around class size and composition remains the same, following the Supreme Court of Canada ruling that the B.C. government had unconstitutionally stripped the language from teacher contracts in 2002.
While Bowes would not comment on details, Johnston confirmed the union and employer remain far apart on how large classes should be and the maximum number of disabled students per class.
Now in their third school year since the COVID-19 pandemic began in the spring of 2020, many teachers have said they are exhausted and stretched thin. A teacher shortage and rising inflation in the province only adds to their stress, Johnston said.
“The working conditions of teachers right now are not tenable. They're not keeping people in the profession. They're not drawing people into the profession,” he said.
“And I think that's something that the government itself needs to take a look at and intervene, in order to make sure that teaching is a career people pursue in British Columbia and the teachers know they're valued.”
Bargaining class size and composition was fraught under the previous Liberal government, which stripped class size and composition contract language 20 years ago, as well as student to specialty teacher ratios for teacher librarians, counsellors, special education teachers and English language learning teachers.
Although they managed to negotiate three collective agreements with the teachers’ union before the NDP formed government in 2017, teacher contracts were often achieved with the Liberal government after conflict with the union.
The negotiated deal in 2006 followed the contract stripping, two legislated contracts and an illegal teachers’ strike in 2005. Mickleburgh credits then-finance minister Carole Taylor for enticing teachers with a $4,000 individual signing bonus, on top of a 16-per-cent salary increase over five years.
“People slag the BC Liberals, but those Carole Taylor deals were fantastic,” he said.
A one-year contract was negotiated in 2012 after the union began “job actions” like refusing to monitor extracurricular activities, fill out report cards and meet with school administrators, and the government passed legislation that fined the union $1.3 million a day if members walked off the job and prevented them from negotiating class size and composition.
In 2014 the union and government negotiated a collective agreement after 20 months of bargaining, six months of job action and a teacher walkout that resulted in school starting three weeks late that September.
As the class size and composition issue was winding its way through the B.C. courts at the time, it was not part of the negotiated agreement in 2014, beyond teachers agreeing to waive their class size and composition grievances from 2002–2014 in exchange for $105 million.
The next negotiated teacher deal in 2020 was under the new NDP government. Over 90 per cent of the nearly 32,000 members who voted — out of roughly 45,000 members total — voted in favour of accepting the deal, which provided two-per-cent annual salary increases for three years.
While some of the BCPSEA negotiators at the table for the 2022 round of bargaining remain the same as those at the table in 2019 and 2014, Johnston says negotiations between the two parties were different this time.
Partially that was because some public sector unions had already negotiated deals.
“What you saw is some other unions that were out front and doing a lot of the pushing, the heavy lifting, the action that we would have done,” he said.
But he also credited the change of government in 2017 and some new faces at the employer’s side of the negotiation table.
“The hope and ability to move the Liberal government to provide more funding for public education, in our opinion was very, very, very low,” he said.
“While we certainly haven't been happy with everything that the current government has done… I think there is at least a better recognition that public education forms a valuable service. It doesn't quite meet what we would hope, but it's better.”
If teachers do not vote in favour of accepting the collective agreement next week, the union and employer will head back to the bargaining table.
“It will be interesting to see the vote,” said Mickleburgh. “I can imagine not all the teachers will be happy.”
* Story updated on Nov. 21 at 1:12 p.m. to correct vote ratification dates that had changed since publication.