The B.C. government's proposed 10-year contract with teachers aims to strip educators of their bargaining rights just as they prepare to negotiate a new deal, says the head of the teachers' union.
"I'm very upset that Christy Clark would try to use teachers, teaching and the public education system, and students, as a (pre-election) political football," said B.C. Teachers' Federation president Susan Lambert.
Premier Christy Clark called the proposed changes to teacher bargaining, announced at a press conference in Surrey Thursday, a framework to end the acrimony between teachers and government and bring stability to B.C.'s education system.
The Liberal proposal calls for 10 years of labour peace in exchange for $100 million of education funding in the deal's third year and restoration of teachers' full right to strike.
Entitled Working Together For Students: A Framework For Long-Terrn Stability in Education, the plan also proposes indexing teacher salaries to wage increases in the rest of the province's public sector.
If teacher salaries had been on par with other public sectors over the last decade, teachers' salaries would have increased by an average of two per cent instead of the actual 1.8 per cent, said Education Minister Don McRae, who was also at the press conference.
Teachers would have a say in how the $100 million is spent. Professional mediators would be available to help resolve bargaining impasses.
Clark said the plan draws from stakeholder suggestions and she sounded determined to get buy-in.
"It's an opportunity, we're taking it. We're going to do everything we can to get this to get a framework that works for our kids," she said.
McRae said for the sake of students, the negativity that has engulfed the teacher-government relationship must end.
"We don't want to, every two years or every four years, go through this repeated cycle of labour angst."
Past acrimony may not soon dissipate, however. In particular, teachers don't like the idea of handing over decisions about classroom size and composition to a council of government, union and school boards representatives, said the BCTF.
"It's ludicrous on the face of it, and it's quite sad that the government would use the rhetoric of reconciliation . . . and yet quite aggressively and relentlessly try to deny teachers their constitutionally guaranteed right to bargain working conditions," said Lambert.
Lambert also said the indexing provisions are "fundamentally unfair" since teachers' salaries now lag behind those of other teachers in Canada.
"This effectively prohibits teachers from negotiating their own salaries," Lambert said. "Under such a scheme government has all the cards. The average of net zero is zero."
Lambert said the teachers' union has reached a tentative agreement with the B.C. Public School Employers Association, the government's bargaining unit, to facilitate the next round of negotiations. Both parties will discuss ratification this weekend.
The 10-year deal is a "heavy attempt" to intervene in that process, she said.
She said the teachers' union hopes to start contract talks on Feb. 4 if there is agreement on several issues, including the inclusion of a facilitator from the beginning of the process.
NDP education critic Robin Austin said the length of any agreement is typically negotiated at the bargaining table so he doesn't understand why the government has stipulated its proposed contract would cover 10 years.
Austin said he's also surprised the premier announced the proposal just before teachers start talks with the government's bargaining team.
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KAMLOOPS PARENTS UNCERTAIN ABOUT PROPOSED DEAL
A deal meant to bring peace to B.C.'s most volatile public service sector was met with mixed feelings in Kamloops Thursday.
Premier Christy Clark said parents are desperate for stability in schools after years of constant labour strife, strikes or looming threats of job action between the B.C. Teachers' Federation and provincial employers.
But Clark's proposed 10-year teacher contracts didn't strike the right chord for some Kamloops parents.
"That's a long time especially since things haven't been that fair for (teachers) in the past," said Tanya Elwood, the mother of a Sahali secondary student and two Beattie elementary students.
"I think for them to settle for 10 years would be ridiculous at this point. So much changes in 10 years. I mean, so much changes year to year."
Coreena McBurnie called the idea interesting but had reservations. As the mother of two elementary students and one high school student, she said clearly parents want stability in their children's classrooms but she isn't convinced a 10-year contract is the way to go.
"Teachers have to be taken into account. If you have unhappy teachers in your school, it doesn't work for kids either."
Kamloops-Thompson trustee Annette Glover wondered what other public sector professionals are locked into 10-year contracts.
"Where else in Canada are there contracts of a 10-year length?" asked Glover. "I don't know of any."
Glover said she likes the idea of involving a mediator if needed, but had qualms about other aspects of the deal.
"I have mixed feelings about this. There are a lot of unknowns yet," she said. "I have concerns that any contract that's 10 years, if things don't go well, there still could be a lot of instability."
Not all were reticent. One father of twin seven-year-old girls embraced the idea. Klaas Toering said the plan could be good for teachers, since it creates certainty. Most importantly, though, he believes it would be good for students.
"The fact that there's a contract, they won't abandon their kids," said Toering. "It's happened, teachers just go on strike, and I don't agree with that."
School board chair Denise Harper said she welcomes anything that brings stability to the education system, adding she is anxious to hear the B.C. Teachers' Federation reaction.
She's also enthusiastic about hearing teachers' input on how to spend the province's proposed $100-million "priority education investment fund."
"They are frontline workers and so obviously their input is so valuable."
Harper questioned the "tight timeline," however. The province intends to begin the bargaining process in March for conclusion on Aug. 31.
"That's just a bit of a mystery to me why something so important would be dealt with that way."
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B.C. Premier Christy Clark hopes to resolve decades-long labour strife in the education system with a new plan proposing 10-year teacher contracts and $100 million in new funding.
It also allows teacher strikes formerly barred by essential services legislation.
According to the document, Working Together For Students: A Framework For Long Term Stability In Education, the timeline for negotiation is a condensed version of typical bargaining due to the provincial election in May.
Here is how it breaks down:
Between March 1 and April 1, negotiations on provincial matters will begin as contemplated under the labour code.
Local school districts and local teachers associations will begin negotiations at the same time on local matters.
On June 15, if an agreement has not been reached the minister of Labour will appoint a special mediator to work with the parties.
If an agreement has not been reached by June 30, the mediator will report out publicly on the issues in dispute and the cost implications of each of the parties' positions.
If there is no agreement by July 15, the mediator will issue recommendations for settlement.
If neither party rejects the mediator's recommendations by July 25, they become the basis for the new collective agreement.
If government rejects the mediator's recommendations, it must provide an alternative offer for settlement by Aug. 7.
If the BCTF rejects the mediator's recommendations or government's alternative offer, they must issue strike notice by Aug. 31. If they do not, then the mediator's recommendations or government's alternative offer will be deemed to be accepted and form the new collective agreement.
Schools will not open at the start of the school year if strike notice is issued, unless the BCTF agrees not to disrupt school operations until a settlement is reached.
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STAKEHOLDERS HAVE THEIR SAY
The proposal document entitled, Working Together For Students: A Framework For Long Term Stability In Education, drew on submissions from four stakeholder groups, said Education Minister Don McRae.
The document's main thrust - the 10-year teacher contract - was not among the groups' suggestion for stability.
The following were some of the ideas proposed.
B.C. CONFEDERATION OF PARENT ADVISORY COUNCILS
The ability to strike, lock out or withdraw services only when the goal is to achieve a collective agreement - labour action for any other reason should be prohibited by law
Inclusion of parents in the bargaining system to represent the rights of the students
Parents should be able to volunteer to replace teachers for any activity that is not teacher work
In the event that inaccuracies in press releases or statements are found by an arbitrator, prominent corrections be posted by the erring parties using the same methods as were used to spread the original erroneous report
Investigation of the depoliticization of education in the province of BC as practiced in Finland - the political games played around public education in B.C. are at least partially responsible for the sad state of affairs
A mechanism imposing the costs of any labour action by either party on the parties involved in the dispute
B.C. TEACHERS FEDERATION
Mutually agreeable independent researcher prepare comparative analysis of terms and conditions of employment for public school teachers across Canada, examining salaries, benefits, work hours, and cost of living
Return of bargaining authority to local parties
Provincial bargaining between the BCTF and government limited to salary, benefits, hours of work, paid leaves, class size, class composition and staffing levels for specialist teachers
Education should not be considered an essential service, strike/lockout are fundamental to the health of a collective bargaining structure
B.C. SCHOOL SUPERINTENDENTS ASSOCIATION
Maintain the provincial/local split with money at the provincial level
Shorten and define timelines
Enable full strike/lockout - essential services requirements have resulted in much of the pressure being on admin/exempt staff and students, with little pressure on the BCTF, resulting in protracted disputes
Have a mediator/arbitrator throughout the process
Have government at the table
Have a media blackout
B.C. PUBLIC SCHOOL EMPLOYERS ASSOCIATION
BCPSEA and BCTF establish their respective bargaining objectives independently, but also develop a common understanding of data relevant to bargaining matters (total cost of compensation, salary and benefits costs, teacher demographics and labour market issues).
Permanent teacher-public school employer collective bargaining dispute resolution panel that would serve to resolve a bargaining impasse.
(British Columbia Principals' and Vice-Principals' Association declined to submit a response to government's invitation for input.)
© Kamloops Daily News