Patti Bacchus: BCTF contract talks—a war of two words?

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      A dispute over two words regarding teachers’ contract talks threatens to boil over and could even end up in a strike that nobody wants if government doesn’t tell its bargaining team to take class-size and composition concessions off the table.

      That’s right: concessions. And those are getting in the way of reaching a contract deal by the end of the school year, when the B.C. Teachers’ Federation’s (BCTF) current contract expires.

      B.C.’s finance and education ministers are referring to proposals as “changes” that would replace class-size and composition language the BCTF spent years in court to get restored. However, the BCTF says that what’s being tabled are, in fact, unacceptable concessions, hence the semantic dispute that could ultimately shut down B.C. schools with a provincewide strike.

      Given it took the BCTF 14 years to get contract provisions restored after they were stripped away by the former B.C. Liberal government in 2002, teachers are not in the mood to give them up now.

      I don’t know which genius on the employer/government side of the bargaining table thought it was a bright idea to table proposals to scrap what the teachers won back in court and replace it with something weaker, something that could actually worsen class size and composition in many school districts.

      There’s just not a chance in heck the BCTF’s bargaining team could convince their members to agree to that.

      And why on earth would they? In exchange for a salary increase that won’t even keep pace with inflation, much less bring them up to what their counterparts in other provinces are making?

      Despite B.C. teachers being paid the second least of all Canadian provinces (Quebec is the only one that pays teachers less than B.C. does), the B.C. NDP government’s bargaining mandate for public-sector unions is set at two percent annual increases over a three-year deal. They’ve already settled with most other public-sector unions, and most have “me too” clauses in their contracts, which mean that if government agrees to give teachers the kind of increases they deserve, they’d have to give them to other public-sector union employees too.

      That would, of course, blow the government’s fiscal plan to smithereens, and I suspect the BCTF bargaining team knows that across-the-board raises beyond two, two, and two aren’t going to happen. A lot of their members aren’t happy about that to begin with, which is understandable after all they’ve been through.

      I know a lot of teachers are shocked and furious that the B.C. Public School Employers’ Association (BCPSEA), which bargains on behalf of government and school boards, had the gall to then table proposals that would toss out contract language they won back in court, specifically around class size and composition.

      NDP "changes" little different than Liberals' "choice"

      They rightly see these as concessions, but government dismisses that, calling the BCPSEA proposals “changes”. When I hear changes, it immediately brings to mind “flexibility and choice”, which was what former education minister Christy Clark said the contract stripping was all about back in 2002. Those of us with kids in the system learned the only “flexibility and choice” that came out of that was that school boards got a choice of what to cut and could pick between school librarians, special education teachers, counsellors, and so on, to balance their underfunded budgets each year. Fool me once… You know how this goes.

      Teachers I’ve been hearing from for the past week tell me they feel betrayed by the Horgan NDP government, which promised to support public education and do things differently. Many teachers wore out shoes door-knocking for NDP candidates during the last election, expecting to be treated better by an NDP government.

      I spoke with outgoing BCTF president Glen Hansman, whose term expires at the end of June (just like the BCTF’s contract), by phone yesterday (May 15), and he sounded frustrated about BCPSEA’s proposals but was also optimistic that talks could get back on track with the right direction from government.

      I’d been wondering whether Finance Minister Carole James and Education Minister Rob Fleming knew exactly what was being proposed by BCPSEA negotiators, and Hansman says he has too. James could be forgiven for focusing on the other urgent files on her desk, but I don’t know what Fleming’s excuse is.

      I’ve known Hansman for a long time, and he’s generally a calm and optimistic guy, so I wasn’t surprised to hear him give James and Fleming the benefit of the doubt—for now, anyway.

      Like Christy Clark is still in charge

      “Ministers James and Fleming have done a lot of good things for education,” Hansman told me. “So, at this point I believe that they’ve been given bad lines and bad information. It’s time for the NDP to give BCPSEA some new marching orders. BCPSEA is negotiating like it’s 2014 and Christy Clark is still premier.”

      Funny Hansman should say that—I was getting exactly the same impression and tweeted something to that effect a few days ago. And it’s really no wonder, given that most of the faces on the BCPSEA side of the table are holdovers from the bad old days under the B.C. Liberals, when (trigger warning) Peter Fassbender was harping on about the “affordability zone”.

      In my time as Vancouver School Board chair, I attended several BCPSEA meetings about bargaining. Those were pretty disturbing experiences that sent my blood pressure into dangerous territory. When there was pretty much nothing on the table in terms of salary improvements (do the terms net-zero or cooperative gains ring a bell?), they’d present a list of concessions they were planning to table, including things like control over professional development and getting rid of seniority provisions. They were bizarre sabre-rattling proposals that seemed guaranteed to derail any hope of reaching a fair deal. It was something to behold, and not in a good way.

      The reality is that while BCPSEA is governed by a board made up of elected school trustees and government appointees, school trustees have little say in what actually happens in bargaining. I’m willing to wager that most school trustees don’t even know or understand what’s being proposed on their behalf (school boards are the employers, although government holds the purse strings). At the very least, they should be demanding to know how BCPSEA’s proposals would affect their districts and if they could result in teacher layoffs and poorer learning conditions for students.

      I don’t understand why an NDP government thought it was a wise idea to send some of those same folks back to the table to bargain a new contract. It’s high time to hit the refresh button so the parties can reach a fair and reasonable deal that respects what the BCTF fought for and won in the country’s highest court.

      Hansman figures that maybe someone at BCSPEA told NDP cabinet ministers and MLAs there aren’t there aren’t concessions on the table (just, you know, “changes”), which isn’t true. “It’s just bad spin for them to call concessions ‘change’,” Hansman says. “Either they haven’t been fully briefed on BCPSEA’s intentions and proposals or they have and are trying to blow past it with public relations spin-doctoring”.

      A concession by any other name still stinks

      There’s no way the BCTF can take a deal to its members that includes worse class-size and composition provisions than what they fought for and won back in court. After all the years under the B.C. Liberals, and weeks spent on picket lines, teachers are in no mood for relinquishing those. Especially not for a measly salary increase that doesn’t even keep up with inflation. It’s not going to happen.

      It’s complicated by the fact that the contract language that was restored after the BCTF court win differs from district to district. Some districts, like Vancouver, have strong and clear contract language regarding class size and composition. Others have nothing on composition. Similar variations exist for class-size limits.

      If BCPSEA’s proposals made it into a deal, some districts might see some improvements, but others would be worse off than they are now.

      BCPSEA’s initial proposals, as I understand them, were to replace existing staffing ratios for the various categories of nonenrolling teachers (counsellors, special-education teachers, teacher-librarians, etcetera) with a single ratio. This would eliminate all the important job-specific ratios, including the ones the BCTF won back in the Supreme Court of Canada. 

      That means districts could decide to get rid of all their elementary teacher-librarians, for example, which some did to balance their budgets under the B.C. Liberals. Teachers have good reason to fear this happening again and rightly view this proposal for what it is: a concession.

      A second BCPSEA proposal sounds an awful lot like a concession to me, as it would actually change class-size limits to make them worse than what is currently in most school districts and even in the B.C. School Act. Hansman pointed out that if the BCTF agreed to that, it would likely result in job losses in schools in most NDP ridings and the three Green ridings, and in fewer direct services for students in those schools. That’s because its school districts in those ridings that have stronger class-size limits already than what BCPSEA is proposing.

      To add insult to injury, BCPSEA’s proposals seek to make it easier for school districts to “flex” class sizes higher, allowing secondary-school classes to go to 33 and grades 4 to 7 classes to go to 32 students, where now the limit is 30. Again, that’s not a change; that’s a concession.

      Hansman calls a third BCPSEA proposal “especially egregious”, as it seeks to replace all class-composition language the BCTF won back with district-level committees that would dole out a pool of funding but would give superintendents power to make final decisions, following consultation with teachers.  That sounds just like what was in place under the B.C. Liberals, prior to the teachers’ Supreme Court of Canada win. It would also eliminate many of locals' contract language that supports successful inclusion of students with special needs.

      Hansman says that would “completely remove everything the BCTF recently won back in the Supreme Court of Canada and would place workload issues related to composition and inclusion, ultimately, at discretion of the school district.”

      A concession like that by any other name—even change—still stinks.

      There was a glimmer of hope on Tuesday (May 14), when BCPSEA replaced those proposals with a new one, but hope quickly faded when the new proposal ended up doing much the same as the previous proposals, by using an average concept for class size, replacing everything the BCTF won back through the court. That’s just another concession that ain’t gonna fly. 

      Here’s how to get a deal done, and done soon

      Drawn-out negotiations create anxiety and instability for everyone in the school system, and that’s the last thing students, parents, teachers, and school boards need. As the clock ticks toward the end of the school year and the current contract’s June 30 expiry date, the best thing for everyone is to cut the concessions and focus on getting a fair deal that can be ratified before everyone heads off on summer vacation.

      We don’t want a repeat of 2014, where talks broke down and the school year ended in a strike that stretched into the fall. Students lost out on end-of-the-school-year events, teachers lost pay, and many had an anxious summer. Worse still, the school year didn’t start on time and students didn’t get back to class until late September. Let’s not do that again. Ever.

      It’s disappointing that talks got off to such a bad start with the BCPSEA’s concessions on the table. I agree with Hansman that it’s time for government—and by government, I mean Premier John Horgan, Finance Minister Carole James, and Education Minister Rob Fleming—to step up and give BCPSEA clear direction to stop playing games with concessions over class size and composition (I have a feeling some of those BCPSEA folks just can’t resist provoking with that stuff, and it serves only to poison the process).

      The parties can then agree on provincial contract language for class size and composition that strikes somewhere in the middle but also agree that teacher locals in districts that won back stronger language can keep it, if they so choose. Whatever is agreed on should mean no school district ends up with weaker class-size and composition that it has now.

      They can also look at staggering contract improvements over a few years in order to address gaps in service without hitting government’s fiscal plan too hard. Improvements can also come through restructuring or shortening teachers’ salary grids, and perhaps adding another top tier for long-serving teachers. I’m sure if they think hard enough they can come up with other ideas.

      There’s no time to waste. School boards are busy organizing schools and classes for next year, and it’s tough to do that when they don’t know what they’ll need to comply with in terms of class size and composition. Schools need stability and clarity so they can focus on doing the best they can for their students.

      It wasn’t long ago some of today’s cabinet ministers were in opposition, joining teachers on picket lines and tweeting about class size and composition. Now that they’re in government, it’s bad enough they set a bargaining mandate that won’t give teachers the kind of salary increases they deserve. The least they can do is be forthright about calling a concession what it is.

      There’s still time to get a deal done by the end of June or, better still, before then. The ball is in the government’s court. Let’s hope they’re ready to play a fair and respectful match.

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