Trent Ernst, Editor
The longest-ever teacher’s strike rolls on with no end in sight as government negotiators and teachers cannot reach common ground.
Negotiations are said to have reached a fever pitch near the end of August, but that negotiation session was only the second time the two sides met during the eight week summer vacation. And September has started with no new talks scheduled.
The government has said they are not planning on legislating teachers back to work. ““Legislating an end to the dispute is the wrong thing to do,” said Minister of Education Peter Fassbender on August 30. “It would only keep us on the same dysfunctional treadmill that we’ve been on for the past 30 years. As hard as it is, we have to stand firm and hope the union leadership comes around to getting serious about negotiating a fair agreement.”
But wait, says Jim Iker president of the BC Teachers’ Federation (BCTF), it’s the government who is dragging their feet. “Over the weekend in talks with [mediator] Vince Ready, the BCTF trimmed its package by $125 million. By contrast, the BC Public School Employers’ Association did not bring one penny to the table. The BCPSEA didn’t get the job done this weekend. They weren’t prepared or authorized to make the moves necessary to get the deal done,”
Last week, the teachers made a call for binding arbitration, but the government rejected the idea.
There are four main issues dividing the two sides. The government is calling for a six year contract; the teachers are hoping for five. The teachers are also still arguing for a signing bonus (to the tune of $5000), while the government says the bonus offer expired. Thirdly, the teachers are asking for an eight percent wage increase, while the government is only offering seven. The teachers are also asking for more benefits which, says Fassbender, doubles the amount that every other public sector union has settled for.
Finally, there is the issue of class size and composition. According to Christy Clark, the government has put $375 million on the table towards solving this issue.
For many teachers, this is at the heart of the issue, and has been a point of contention since 2002 when Christy Clark, in her role as education minister, tore up the existing collective agreements and put into place Bills 27 and 28, which eliminated protections on class size and composition, cut support for kids with special needs and eliminated teacher’s rights to bargain. In 2007, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled the latter unconstitutional, and in 2011, the issues of class size and composition were also declared unconstitutional, a ruling which was upheld in January of this year. The government has appealed.
Iker says the government is demanding an “escape clause”, which would “in effect nullify two class size and composition wins in the BC Supreme Court and any future decision in teachers’ favour. Twice now the government has been found to have violated Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms in BC Supreme Court. And now, the BC Liberals are trying to negotiate away those court losses and any future decisions.”
If the government were to legislate teacher’s back to work, observers say, then the court decisions would still be hanging over their heads. While the government has appealed, if they can get the teachers to agree to a settlement in which issues of class size and composition are set aside, that would mean that the ruling by the courts would be, in effect, invalid.
“If the BCTF accepts anything ‘less’ than what the courts have already awarded them,” writes teacher Christian Obeck, “then they will have to accept these terms moving forward. It will invariably trump the Griffin ruling and any hopes of re-establishing classroom size and composition to past levels.
“Why would the BCTF accept anything less than what the courts have told them is legally theirs?”
For now, there is no apparent end in sight. Last week, both Premier Christy Clark and Jim Iker held press conferences, both calling for talks, but both holding to their previously stated positions. “I wish I could tell British Columbians when students will be back in school,” says Fassbender. “But right now, I don’t see any quick or easy solutions.”