Teachers’ win a big challenge for Clark

The teachers’ union big win in court this week has created big headaches for Christy Clark.

Practically, the ruling that the Liberals acted illegally in stripping class size and composition limits from teachers’ contracts in 2002 could end up adding to the education.

It will certainly make contract talks with the B.C. Teachers Federation, already underway, much more difficult.

Politically, the ruling raises questions about Clark’s judgment. She was education minister at the time and a key architect and defender of the discredited legislation.

And it reminds people that, while Clark has been working to distance herself from the Campbell years, she was a cabinet minister and deputy premier for the Liberals’ first three years in government, when some of the most controversial decisions were made.

The issue isn’t complex. The teachers’ union had successfully bargained to have class size and composition limits in contracts. (Composition refers to the number of special needs students in a class.)

In 2001, the newly elected Liberals thought the limits were too restrictive, costly and properly a matter of education policy.

So they passed laws in 2002 to strip them from the contract and bar the union from negotiating the issues in future.

The Liberals had a point. Class sizes are matter of education policy, which should be the responsibility of school trustees and MLAs.

But a sensible government would recognize they are also an issue of working conditions. There needs to be some balancing of interests.

Clark didn’t see it that way. The government used legislation to strip the contracts. (In spite of Gordon Campbell’s pre-election promise to honour all signed agreements.)

It did the same thing with health workers, leading to the firing of some thousands of employees to be replaced with people working for much lower wages.)

The health unions won their lawsuit in 2007. That cost taxpayers $85 million in settlement costs.

Now the teachers’ union has won a similar victory. The court found there was no justification for stripping the contract and removing teachers’ right to bargain working conditions – especially when they had agreed to other concessions in negotiations in return for the class size and composition limits.

The court didn’t rule teachers had an absolute right to negotiate class size limits.

But it found the government hadn’t made any real case that the issues couldn’t have been addressed through bargaining and had made no effort to find other, less draconian solutions.

Before Clark and company stripped the contracts, there months of consultation with the B.C. School Employers’ Association, which bargained for school districts.

But none, literally, with the B.C. Teachers Federation on ways of dealing with the underlying issues.

OK, the BCTF was a difficult union. (And still is – the union is seeking outlandish wage increases in the current round of negotiations.)

But the government’s failure to make any effort before using legislation to strip contracts was thuggish and incompetent.

And costly. If the government had made any sort of real effort to seek solutions to real problems, the outcome of the court case might have been different.

The law on bargaining rights was unclear at the time. The health unions’ 2007 Supreme Court of Canada victory changed that.

But practically and ethically, seeking a solution without attacking the bargaining rights of teachers – and creating years of costly conflict – would have been much smarter.

Instead, the government blundered ahead. In court, it couldn’t provide any evidence class size limits were a real problem. It couldn’t offer any evidence that a negotiated resolution wasn’t available. And it conceded it didn’t even try to solve the problem without a harsh law.

Those were costly mistakes. The court gave the government 12 months to address the rights’ violation, but the teachers’ union is not going to sign a new agreement that doesn’t reflect the judgment.

Clark faces an early test. And not an easy one.

Footnote: It’s also surprising that the government didn’t try to negotiate a settlement with the teachers once the health unions won in 2007.

The clear legal victory gives the BCTF considerable bargaining clout in the current talks, which the union will certainly use.