Patti Bacchus: Government’s BCTF contract conundrum

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      Imagine you’re a teacher who has been working for a few decades. You’ve been through the bitter education battles under the B.C. Liberal government. They tore up your contract, and your union dues paid for a lengthy, expensive court case the B.C. Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) ultimately won at the Supreme Court of Canada. For years, you’ve taught in classes that were larger and more complex than your torn-up contract permitted.

      You lost wages when you went on strike for better working conditions and wage increases that would at least keep up with inflation. You’ve worked in cold, poorly maintained school buildings with leaking roofs, knowing they could come crashing down on you and your students in an earthquake. You’ve bought classroom supplies with your own money, because otherwise your students would have to go without. Your friends from university who work in other provinces earn more than you do, yet their housing costs are much lower.


      You volunteered to knock doors and make phone calls to oust the Liberals and Christy Clark—who sent her own child to an expensive private school—and to elect an NDP government that would respect teachers and public education. You never thought you’d see the day there was an actual teacher shortage but, boy, were you wrong. After so many years of frustration and disappointment, you’re finally feeling optimistic that with an NDP government, a court victory, and a teacher shortage you and your colleagues will finally get what you deserve in a new collective agreement when your current one expires at the end of June.

      You’re probably wrong.

      The challenge

      With the B.C. Nurses’ Union and Health Employers Association set to ratify new contracts later this month, the Horgan government has been successful in quietly settling several major public-sector negotiations within its “sustainable services negotiating mandate” of two-percent increases, each year, for three years. Now it needs to work out a deal with the B.C. Teachers’ Federation (BCTF), which may be its most challenging public-sector union.

      The BCTF makes a convincing case that wages for B.C.’s public-school teachers have fallen behind other provinces. Two-percent annual increases barely keep up with inflation and do nothing to address the gap between B.C. teacher wages and those in other provinces. With our current teacher shortage, B.C. needs to be competitive to attract candidates from other provinces and stop the teachers we have from moving away. But government can’t budge from its two-two-and-two framework without triggering “me-too” clauses in other public-sector contracts that would give them any additional increase that teachers get.

      Getting a contract that BCTF members will accept—given the exceptionally strong position they’re in—to replace the one that expires at the end of June 2019 is going to require creativity, flexibility, and cooperation on the part of both government and BCTF negotiators.

      The context

      I see signs that bode well for reaching a deal without a prolonged dispute or strike, but there’s a long, tricky path ahead no matter how you slice it. Education Minister Rob Fleming (or, more likely, the premier’s office) recently backed off implementing controversial funding changes for the coming school year and before its contract negotiations with the BCTF are completed.

      That’s important because how students with special needs are factored into calculating class-size limits and supports will be key in this round of talks, given the BCTF’s court win, which confirmed its right to bargain class size and composition. If government had pushed ahead with its plan to bring in a new funding model that shifts to a “prevalence” funding model for special education—instead of the current model that provides funding based on individual student designations—it would have thrown a big monkey wrench into bargaining. The BCTF and its president, Glen Hansman, raised the alarm about this and government wisely backed off. That’s a preliminary victory for Hansman and the BCTF.

      Speaking of the BCTF’s affable, media-savvy leader, federation practice is typically for its presidents to serve a three-year term and then step into the role of past president. They’re usually replaced by the union’s first vice president, who in this case is Teri Mooring, a teacher from Quesnel. Hansman’s third one-year term expires when the BCTF contract ends, at the end of this coming June. The ceremonial handover to Mooring is expected to take place at the BCTF’s AGM in March, which will be held in Victoria this year, although Hansman will stay in the role until the end of June.

      I hear there’s some nervousness about a change in leadership at what will likely be a critical phase in contract negotiations, but I suspect that’s largely unfounded as Mooring is cut from much the same cloth as Hansman in terms of style and will likely be working closely with him throughout the process. I expect the transition will be smooth and that Mooring will prove to be equally as popular as Hansman is among BCTF membership, parent groups, politicians, and the news media.

      Some bad signs

      Unfortunately, I also see signs that don’t bode well for successful, smooth negotiations.

      Government hasn’t seemed in any hurry to get to the table with the BCTF, although, technically, it’s the B.C. Public School Employers’ Association (BCPSEA) that does the bargaining on behalf of government and school boards. That group is set to meet with school trustees later this month to talk about bargaining. A look at their program is a disappointing blast from the past, with a speaker lineup of B.C. Liberal-era holdovers, including the former deputy minister of education, Dave Byng.

      BCPSEA is an odd organization, both with its strange governance structure and in how it operates. I attended several of its meetings over the years in my role as the Vancouver School Board’s (VSB) chair and as its representative to BCPSEA. Its board comprises school-trustee representatives elected by school boards and government-appointed trustees. Its staff appear to report directly to government with the trustee members providing some input. In reality, the real bargaining happens between the BCTF leadership and the premier’s office, leaving BCPSEA’s well-compensated bureaucrats and board members with little real say in the matter at all but still with the task of negotiating a lot of the detailed fine print of the collective agreement.


      It makes me more than a little uncomfortable to see former education minister Peter Fassbender’s deputy minister, Dave Byng, on the BCPSEA trustee-meeting agenda to tell trustees how the relationships between school boards, school-district management teams, the minister, and Ministry of Education staff work, given how dysfunctional and toxic those relationships were under the B.C. Liberals when Byng was in a key leadership position. (Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised to see this from an organization that brought “business analyst” Michael Campbell as a plenary speaker to a school-trustee conference in 2014. I kid you not.)

      I have little confidence the BCPSEA brain trust has the capacity or will to find creative, positive solutions to the challenge ahead to reach an agreement with the BCTF, nor do I expect much from Education Minister Rob Fleming, who has been underwhelming in his role so far. If innovative solutions are to be found, and I hope they are, they’re likely to come from the likes of Premier John Horgan’s right-hand man and chief of staff, Geoff Meggs. Meggs knows more about labour negotiations and problem-solving than almost anyone in this province, and he knows what can and can’t be done within government. I wish we could put Hansman (or Mooring) in a room with Meggs, sooner rather than later, and tell them not to come out until they’ve made a deal. It would likely save a lot of time and frustration for thousands of teachers, students, and parents.

      But that’s not how things work, and motions will have to be gone through and hours and hours will be spent on details. Government is likely hoping to stall as long as possible before getting down to the nitty-gritty issues, given the possibility of being forced to go back to the polls this spring if government falls for one reason or another.

      They’re probably also hoping that other public-sector unions that have ratified or have tentative agreements in place will be putting pressure on the BCTF to get their deal resolved as quickly and quietly as possible so as not to cause problems for a government that’s still their best bet.

      What you might see in the new BCTF deal

      I didn’t get that crystal ball I’ve been wanting for Christmas, but here are my best guesses (you get what you pay for, dear reader) for what you might see in a new BCTF contract this spring or summer (let’s hope this round of talks doesn’t run into the fall, like they did in 2014).

      The old collective agreements—that were effectively restored by the Supreme Court of Canada—vary among B.C.’s 60 school districts and were created at a time when more bargaining was done locally, district by district. Some school-district collective agreements include detailed contract language regarding class composition that either limits the number of students with special needs that can be in each class or prescribes what supports must be in place for students with various special-education designations. The VSB’s language is detailed and specific, while agreements with districts like West Vancouver and Surrey contain pretty much nothing regarding class composition.

      Bargaining for contract cost items—including salary, class size and composition, paid leaves, employee benefits, and hours of work—is done provincially, between the BCTF and BCSPEA, while local school boards bargain issues like school calendar, how jobs are posted and filled, and how teacher layoffs and recall are handled.

      It makes sense to have common contract language for all school districts when it comes to class size and composition. I’m guessing the BCTF will be arguing for Vancouver-style provisions across the province, while the government/BCPSEA side will argue it doesn’t give school boards enough flexibility to allocate staffing. Expect this to be a key issue in the negotiations as it will have significant costs attached.

      B.C.’s teacher shortage gives the BCTF a strong hand in arguing for things like generous moving allowances for new hires (and they should remind government/school board negotiators that it’s not unusual for senior school-district managers to negotiate five-figure moving allowances), help repaying student loans, and housing allowances for new teachers coming to districts with high housing costs.

      What about veteran teachers?

      That’s all great for new teachers, but what’s in it for those who’ve been slogging away in the system for longer? They need something more than the two, two, and two increase, which will barely keep pace with inflation and do nothing to catch them up to other provinces. Look for increased “prep” time (time that teachers get their classes covered by another teacher so they can do preparation and marking, etcetera) or perhaps changes to the salary grid that would enable teachers to get to higher salary levels more quickly than they currently do.

      I don’t see a whole lot more room for anything that will improve the lot of long-time teachers, at least not without triggering those pesky “me too” clauses that could be staggeringly expensive for the government treasury.

      School boards will also be watching to make sure that anything that’s negotiated that has a cost attached is fully funded by government, and changes to prep time or salary grids won’t come cheap.

      The BCTF’s leaders have their work cut out for them to get their members a decent deal, but they’re also going to have to work hard at managing the members’ high expectations after so many years under the B.C. Liberals. I don’t see a practical scenario that will give long-time teachers what they actually deserve, no matter how hard the BCTF bargaining team works at the table.

      There will be some good folks on both sides of the bargaining table this time who care about public education, which is a pleasant departure from what we witnessed over the past few rounds of bargaining. That’s encouraging, but I still don’t think anyone should get their hopes up too high.

      Patti Bacchus is the Georgia Straight K-12 education columnist. She was chair of the Vancouver school board from 2008 to 2014.