COLUMN: Adversarial negotiations

Provincewide bargaining keeping schools closed in B.C.

As the teachers’ strike drags on, one sometimes wonders if things would be settled more easily if bargaining again took place at the local school district level.

There certainly would not be the bitterness and rancour that exists today.

The striking teachers, who have already lost about three weeks’ pay, seem almost as angry at the provincial government as they were in early June, when they voted by an 86 per cent margin to go on strike. It is worth noting that more than 33,000 teachers took part in the strike vote – a huge turnout of B.C. Teachers Federation members.

Provincewide bargaining was brought in by the NDP government in the early 1990s under education minister Art Charbonneau. Until that time, districts made agreements with local teachers’ associations – usually on an annual basis.

Each agreement was slightly different, but the wage increases were generally quite uniform across the province.

The longstanding practice was that a teachers’ association would usually try to conclude an agreement with a union-friendly board first. New Westminster, which for many years had two Surrey teachers sitting as trustees, was often a favourite, as it almost always was dominated by pro-labour and pro-teacher trustees.

Once that settlement was reached, other districts were pressured to sign similar agreements – and they almost always did.

The relationship in Surrey between the Surrey Teachers Association and the school district, which often had a majority of trustees who were slightly right-leaning, was usually harmonious when it came to the contract.

Teachers did not have the ability to strike at that time. Chances are, they would have been unlikely to use it.

The similarity of contracts was a key reason the province changed the bargaining system. It cost a lot to conclude individual agreements that were quite similar.

Premier Mike Harcourt asked Charbonneau to find ways to reduce education cost duplications. Bringing in provincewide bargaining was one of them. Some smaller school districts were also merged into larger ones – reducing the number of districts to 60 from 75.

Later on, under NDP premier Glen Clark, the BCTF and the province concluded an agreement that sowed the seeds of the mistrust that exists today. Clark wanted a wage freeze – and he got it by agreeing to a contract that imposed hard and fast class-size limits.

This was imposed over the objections of most school districts, who feared it would be hard to manage individual classrooms.

This led to, in some cases, students being taken by taxi across town because their neighbourhood school could not accommodate them.

When the BC Liberals came into power in 2001, they (under education minister Christy Clark) arbitrarily removed that part of the contract dealing with class-size limits. That action has been ruled against in two lawsuits initiated by the BCTF.

The union wants the government to agree to some form of class-size limits and pay a financial penalty for its actions in 2002, as part of the new contract. The government, which is appealing the latest court ruling, says that can’t be on the table while the court case proceeds.

There has long been bad blood between the BCTF and the government of the day.

But the current fight with the BC Liberals is much more deep-rooted than earlier battles.

That’s why the strike is likely to last until September, and it is quite possible there will be no classes even in early September. Surrey superintendent of schools Jordan Tinney has already hinted that may happen.

Summer school is on hold, and may proceed – but that seems doubtful as well.

The province has taken control of many institutions that once had much more ability to make decisions locally – hospitals, transit (outside the Lower Mainland) and schools.

However, when such tight provincial control leads to so much upheaval for so many people, it must be questioned.

Frank Bucholtz writes Thursdays for the Peace Arch News. He is the editor of the Langley Times.



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