B.C. Teachers Strike: Bargaining Model 'Fatally Flawed' Says Expert
VANCOUVER - The looming teachers strike that threatens to send parents and school officials across British Columbia scrambling as early as next week is rooted in a two-decade-old decision to fundamentally change the way the province bargains with its educators, according to experts who have spent years repeatedly diagnosing the problem.
Mark Thompson, a professor emeritus with the University of British Columbia's business school, is just the latest expert to state what parents in British Columbia have come to regard as obvious.
"I maintain that the bargaining structure that they have is fatally flawed," Thompson said in an interview Wednesday..
B.C. teachers have been under provincewide bargaining since 1994, when the NDP government replaced district-by-district negotiations with a single, unified bargaining system — over the objections of the teachers' union.
Since then, the only time teachers and their employer have successfully negotiated a contract was in 2006, when the government was flush with money and eager to head off public-sector strikes in the lead-up to the 2010 Olympics.
That five-year deal included a 16 per cent wage increase and a one-time signing bonus of $4,000 per teacher.
But before and since, governments of both political stripes have had to step in.
"No one does it as badly as we do," Don Wright, a former deputy education minister under the NDP government, wrote in his 2003 analysis of the situation.
"Fundamentally flawed," was the description by B.C.'s Labour Relations Board last December in a ruling related to the current dispute.
"Neither party views the other party as anywhere close to what is commonly referred to as the 'settlement zone,''' wrote Trevor Hughes, the latest fact finder asked to assess the situation.
Hughes' report last week set the stage for the B.C. government to draft back-to-work legislation, sparking a showdown that sent the teachers to the Labour Relations Board earlier this week, gaining the right to strike for three days.
The teachers could potentially strike as early as next week, as it appears unlikely that back-to-work legislation will be passed by then. Teachers spent Tuesday and Wednesday voting on whether to stage a walkout, with the results expected Thursday.
In his 2003 report, Wright noted negotiations between the government and teachers have been rocky since 1987, when the teachers were first given the right to strike.
The NDP government brought in provincewide bargaining in 1994.
Four years later, the New Democrats imposed a contract on teachers on the last day of school.
Relations between the teachers' union and the B.C. Liberals have been worse.
In 2001, the Liberals passed essential services legislation and effectively removed teachers' right to strike.
A year later, the Liberals removed class-size, staffing, and workload provisions from contracts, a move that was struck down as unconstitutional by a judge last year.
And in the fall of 2005, teachers engaged in a two-week strike after the Liberal government extended their expired contract. The strike was ruled illegal by the B.C. Supreme Court, and the BCTF was fined.
The Labour Relations Board concluded in December the bargaining process is dysfunctional, because neither side is under the usual pressure to negotiate.
Past history has shown the government always steps in, removing any incentive to compromise.
In addition, the board concluded neither side has been willing to come up with a narrow definition for what's "essential" for the education system to function, making any job action a complicated, drawn-out process that requires extensive hearings at the Labour Relations Board. That's what has happened for the current school year, with the board ultimately allowing teachers to skip administrative tasks such as writing report cards and marking exams.
Meanwhile, Thompson noted arbitration is not an alternative, as in other professions, because pay hikes for 41,000 teachers would amount to millions of dollars from the public purse and would trigger me-too clauses within the contracts already settled by other public-sector unions.
British Columbia's politicized labour movement and tradition of activism has also added to the mix in the current teachers' dispute, said Thompson.
"The nearest model to B.C. is Quebec, where it mostly ends up with legislation," Thompson said of dispute resolution involving teachers.
While B.C. teachers have compared the government's legislated handling of their contracts with seemingly better conditions in Alberta, Thompson said Alberta's conservative attitudes and low levels of democratic participation mean the two jurisdictions are very different.
That was on full display on Wednesday on Twitter, where Education Minister George Abbott went to discuss the legislation with teachers and parents.
Abbott defended the bill, saying a mediator will be required to work with the teachers union and school employers to resolve all outstanding issues within the government's wage freeze.
A tweet by one user echoed the teachers' union rhetoric by saying: "Stop bullying and start truly negotiating. This legislation is a sham and mocks democracy and the constitution", while another described Abbott's defence as "desperate hypocrisy by a government on its way out."
Some users were concerned about the tone of the Twitter exchange, with yet another tweeting: "This debate is scary. Teachers are supposed to rely on facts, not rhetoric. This is a very chilling thread, B.C. parents will notice."