Broken bargaining spells more school problems

British Columbians - especially parents - should be steamed at the province’s government and the teachers’ union as they head toward another pointless, destructive battle.

British Columbians – especially parents – should be steamed at the province’s government and the teachers’ union as they head toward another pointless, destructive battle.

The B.C. Teachers Federation has already announced job action will begin in September, when members will quit doing administrative tasks – like report cards and planning meetings. Individual teachers also have the option of ending their support of extracurricular activities like band and sports, the union says. (Few will, in part because they’re devoted to the work and know how much of a difference it makes in kids’ lives.)

The union has tabled a ridiculous slate of contract proposals. Its seeking, for example, 10 days of paid bereavement leave if a family member or ‘friend’ dies. The current contract, like many, provides five days’ paid leave when an immediate family member dies. It’s seeking a retirement ‘bonus’ that would work out to a full year’s pay for most teachers.

And while the BCTF hasn’t tabled wage proposals, it has said it wants increases of 12 per cent to 20 per cent to achieve parity with Ontario and Alberta.

Bargaining always involves posturing and proposals made to be traded away later. But these are foolishly unrealistic and impossible to justify. (Last year, about 2,700 new teachers graduated or entered the province. There are only 1,000 vacancies a year. Current working conditions – pay ranges from about $42,000 to $80,000 – are clearly enough to attract eager applicants. The union could argue the jobs are attracting second-rate candidates, but that won’t please current members.)

Meanwhile, the government is sticking with its position that teachers, like most other public sector workers, should accept a salary freeze.

But the government has failed to signal a willingness to move on important issues in bargaining. The most obvious one is the need to address a court ruling that the government broke the law when it stripped class size and composition limits from teachers’ contracts in 2002. Restoring the limits, in some form, will mean many more jobs for teachers and aides, a plus for the union.

Instead, the two sides will stumble through an escalating series of provocations and disruptions, with students and families the losers. The union and the employer will buy ads and craft messages, each trying to be seen as the good guy.

At some point, the disruption will be great enough that the government will legislate teachers back to work and impose a contract.

And then we’ll do it all again in a couple of years.

There are alternatives to this pointless exercise.

Vince Ready, asked to look into a 2006 dispute, recommended a new bargaining approach for these talks.

Both sides should establish bargaining objectives eight months before the contract expires, he wrote. That would have been last Sept. 30.

A facilitator/mediator should then meet with them in negotiating sessions. The parties should develop an agreed on statement of facts about the issues – the current cost of compensation and benefits, recruitment issues and the rest.

And a senior government representative should be at the table, since that’s where the real decision-making power lies,  not with the B.C. School Employers’ Association.

After the usual bargaining failures in 2004, Don Wright was asked to review the process. He recommended that a conciliator be appointed if bargaining fails. If that doesn’t work, union and employers would submit their final offers and the conciliator would pick one to form the new collective agreement.

Neither recommendation went anywhere. So the two sides spend time and money on the same doomed bargaining process, with students and families the big losers.

Both New Democrats and Liberals will try to convince voters they are best trusted with the task of reaching a fair, affordable contract. Expect the Liberals, especially, to claim the NDP would be far too generous with public sector unions.

But the reality is that both parties, when in government, have failed to come up with a way to avoid this foolishness.

Footnote: There are ways to reach agreement, despite a salary freeze, including addressing class size and composition. That would cost money, however, and the education budget is to rise by less than  one-half per cent over the next two years,