BRITISH COLUMBIA

B.C. government attempts to fix broken teacher bargaining process

10/17/2012 04:57 EDT | Updated 12/17/2012 05:12 EST
VANCOUVER - The B.C. government is moving to fix its decades-long dysfunctional bargaining relationship with the province's public school teachers.

The head of the B.C. Teachers Federation said teachers will take part in the process, but Susan Lambert said they're wary of a government that has forced teachers back to work through legislation.

On Wednesday, Premier Christy Clark announced a review of the bargaining process with the goal of making legislative changes next spring.

That would come at the same the teachers' contract expires next June and around the same time as a provincial election.

Clark has appointed Education Minister Don McRae to conduct consultations and review reports with the goal of long-term labour stability and improving the relationship between the union and government.

McRae will start his consultation work right away and it's expected to last into November.

The premier said the main goals of the process will be to bring long-term stability to the teacher-labour process and improve the way government interacts with the B.C. Teachers Federation.

"These two goals are going to require compromise on all sides of the table, including ours," she told reporters.

"It's worth thinking about what could be achieved, for example, with a 10-year deal for teachers. Imagine a child in Grade 2 starting this year could go all the way to Grade 12 without any threat of labour disruption."

The B.C. Teachers Federation has had a fractious relationship with government both during the negotiation process and in court.

The BCTF spent most of the last school year in job action before its union members reluctantly agreed to a new one-year contract ending June 2013.

After the government's announcement, Lambert said the problems go much deeper than the union-employer bargaining structure.

She said the Liberal government has often used a legislative hammer on teachers to impose an end to their strikes or job action, including stopping union job action in the last school year and forcing it to work with a mediator.

"No matter what you do to change bargaining structures, to make them more effective, if you have a government that wants to interfere as this government has, you're going to have dysfunctional bargaining."

Lambert said the other constant problem has been lack of funding for education.

"The reason that we have had such dysfunctional bargaining for the last decade or more is because teachers have been trying to address through bargaining ... the worsening conditions in schools, attributable to the chronic underfunding."

Lambert said goodwill would go a long way if the government would honour a B.C. Supreme Court ruling last year that said parts of the government's Bills 27 and 28 were unconstitutional because the laws took away the rights of teachers to bargain over class size and composition.

The court gave the government until April next year to fix the problem.

"We are still fighting for redress of that decision," Lambert said.

Regardless, Lambert said the union wants to give its input.

"We will work very, very hard. I think that the six-week window is very short, much too short.

"We hope there is sincerity on the part of government, it's not empty or hollow or a sham process. We will do our all to voice our concerns as articulately as possible."

As for the premier's example of a 10-year contract with teachers, Lambert said Clark was putting the cart before the horse by revealing her objects in bargaining before even starting the process.