Fassbender backs down on bargaining break

Teachers, BCPSEA show ministry of education how it’s done

The province’s public teachers have voted 96 per cent in favour of opposing government interference in their contract negotiation process, in a rousing round of support for their bargaining team.

In a province-wide vote conducted June 26-28, British Columbia Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) members were asked if they supported their team’s efforts toward a negotiated settlement and, consequently oppose any government interference in the bargaining process.

More than 20,000 teachers voted in favour of the motion, with less than 1,000 negative ballots.

This followed government’s action on June 20, when Education Minister Peter Fassbender asked the BCTF and the British Columbia Public School Employers’ Association (BCPSEA) to take a break in negotiations, but then withdrew his request later in the month.

Cariboo Chilcotin Teachers’ Association acting president Joan Erb says the voting results and timing are “excellent” since union members don’t know what legislation might be imposed by government during the summer.

She notes Fassbender had initially made it clear the province would negotiate directly with the BCTF in pursuit of a 10-year agreement and formally rescinded the mandate of its bargaining agent, BCPSEA, before backing off.

“I am extremely pleased the members have basically given free rein to our bargaining team … and are willing to support whatever efforts they deem necessary to take on the government in this 10-year deal.”

However, the BCTF has also reversed its position of last December when it asked the province to collectively bargain with its team on many long-contended contract issues brought to a stalemate on numerous occasions with BCPSEA.

Erb explains that change in stance came about when significant progress was seen in its bargaining process with BCPSEA after a third party (mediator Mark Brown) was brought in by government.

“The biggest thing that changed was that there was a mediator at the table, prior to any discussion.”

That process worked “very efficiently,” she says, adding this was greatly due to having a mutually-agreed-to person in the mediator’s role.

Instead of coming to a standstill, the mediator was able to immediately meet individually with the parties, discuss what the issues were and work out how to get back to the table.

Erb says the education minister likely decided to “back-track” when he saw the talks carrying on and the two bargaining entities working together effectively – despite his request they break it off.

“BCTF and BCPSEA went ahead anyway. So, I think [Fassbender] saw ‘the writing on the wall’ and realized that ‘OK, we are opening a bigger can of worms than we thought necessary’.”

However, Erb notes the success of the new bargaining process surprised her, too.

On June 12, the BCTF met with BCSPEA to ask it to “push back” to government on the 10-year agreement mandate, she explains.

“In the ten-year deal, BCPSEA basically disappears. So I think this was BCPSEA’s effort to save themselves.”

Both parties are vulnerable, since BCPSEA is at risk of being “dissolved” and the BCTF is at risk of having a 10-year contract imposed, Erb adds, so the two parties have mutual interests for the first time that “support each other’s objectives.”

By taking this route, she says it seems they gained the support of the BCTF, but also some backing from the public and other labour unions.

“With the fact that BCPSEA is working together in opposition to the government, on first of all, a pause in bargaining, and secondly, a 10-year deal, I do believe the BCPSEA is starting to realize the unreasonableness of the provincial mandate.”

However, Erb notes the BCPSEA has yet to bring forward anything longer than a two-year plan.

Meanwhile, she is “cautiously optimistic” about moving forward in contract negotiations with the provincial bargaining agent now that it has held its ground.

“It was totally unexpected. I didn’t think BCPSEA had the guts to stand up to government, and they proved me wrong, and I am very pleased.”

100 Mile House Free Press