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Untangle Libs and BCTF

Change a losing game. Try compulsory arbitration.

Rafe Mair 10 Oct

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The teachers and the Campbell government are like the proverbial scorpions in a bottle. In many ways, they need each other for political purposes. The government thinks Mom and Dad (mostly Mom) support them and the teachers think that they have this support. Each of them sees a strong stance as cementing traditional relations with core voter support.

Am I implying that the BC Teachers' Federation is an arm of the NDP? If not an arm, as close to one as damn is to swearing!

Am I suggesting that "rightwing" governments are by definition opposed to teachers? That's been the history.

Of course I'm suggesting these things because they are obviously true, but that's a long way short of saying that even a majority, much less all, teachers are behind the NDP or all the government's supporters hate teachers. That the executives of each side don't care for one another much is plain to see and it's been that way for as long as I can remember.

Sims as martyr?

The teachers have produced a star for the latest performance: Jinny Sims. Articulate, if sometimes too mouthy, witty and telegenic, Ms. Sims has successfully done the talk shows which is the best way to get support. I watched her the other night with Andrew Dawson, a brilliant young interviewer who is a colleague of mine on NOW TV, Channel 10, ands she was the soul of rationality and persuasion. By the middle of this week she could be in jail for contempt of court and this is one martyr the government doesn't need!

The government started this fight when they took the issue of class size and composition away from the bargaining table and gave it to the employers. The government (and I use government and employer interchangeably) sees teachers as wanting to bring size classes to teeny numbers and also sees itself as a reasonable employer who will carefully juggle special needs children and ESL pupils into just the right balance. Teachers see that as something to be bargained, arguing that they are in the best position to make these judgments. Even before the last election, the parties were in lockstep towards disaster.

During the last election, Premier Campbell baited the teachers and virtually dared them to go on strike. And he got his way. In doing this, the premier violated one of the oldest rules in politics - leaders should keep out of disputes best handled by the appropriate minister. There are a billion reasons for this. Mainly, it's the same reason that keeps the skipper from stoking the fires in the engine room - he loses face and he's thereafter expected to do it all the time.

Big classes, big issue

Money is a secondary issue in this dispute. For the first two years, which is to say the two years for which there's been no contract, there will be no pay hike because everyone in the public sector got 0 and 0 (I'm not sure you can "get" 0 but you get my drift). Moreover, this leaves next year. The government knows it must pay more but since over 90 percent of the public servants will be in discussions with the government next year, they must tread very carefully.

The main issue is class size and associated issues such as special needs kids, ESL students and the like. As I understand it, Ms. Simms isn't saying that this issue should simply be up to the teachers and I thought I heard her say that it doesn't even have to be part of the bargaining process if the government would just consult. That's pretty silly and I find it hard to believe that the rank and file would accept a contract that gave them the right to be consulted before the government stuck it to them.

I believe that teachers have the right to have class sizes, etc. as an issue. And I think there's a reasonable solution.

How to arbitrate

Let me say first, that I'm no fan of arbitration on money issues for a lot of reasons I'll not go into here. But there is a place for compulsory arbitration in this dispute. Class sizes etc are not a one-size-fits-all question. Not only do school districts differ one from the other, schools within the same district can be as unalike as chalk and cheese. Why not set up an arbitration panel, one from the government, one from the teachers and a chair chosen by this pair?

The rules of access must be reasonable but this would take the issue out of the political arena where it now rests into the hands of those who must make fair decisions.

I know something about what teachers go through. I have a special needs grandson and I shudder to think of what his teacher and entire class must go through when the inevitable temper tantrum occurs.

Governments are too far removed to make decisions on this subject and teachers are, arguably, too close so let's find a different method and see how it works.

It can hardly be worse than the broken system we have.

Rafe Mair's column for The Tyee runs every Monday and he can be heard every weekday morning from 8:30-10:30 on 600AM. His website is  [Tyee]

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