Patti Bacchus: Here’s to a great school year (and what parents need to know about collective bargaining)

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      Late summer, when the leaves start to turn and the darkness sets a bit earlier each night, always feels bittersweet to me. The lazy, hazy days are coming to an end, but there’s also the promise a new school year offers.

      When I was a kid, my feet would feel funny in the confines of new back-to-school shoes, after a carefree summer of wearing flip flops or running barefoot. I’d be sad to put away my summer uniform of swimsuits, T-shirts and shorts, but would look forward to wearing new back-to-school clothes, and trying out my new lunch kit, which in those days usually came with a glass-lined thermos—that would inevitably shatter by Thanksgiving. 

      I loved organizing my new school supplies and preparing for a fresh start. I’d begin each year determined to be organized, with notebooks filled with impeccable handwriting, and titles neatly underlined. That generally lasted a few weeks, until old habits kicked back in.

      As a parent of two, I was relieved when my kids headed back to school each fall, but not happy to be back on schedules, making lunches, and having to crack down on bed times and getting-up times. But mostly, I just wanted my kids to be in a class with a good friend or two and to have teachers who loved their jobs and had what it took to help kids get engaged in class.

      I don’t miss years when teachers seemed distracted by contract negotiations and other battles with government. Those conflicts bred anxiety and stress, which isn’t good for anyone. That’s one reason I hope the government and school boards’ bargaining agent—the B.C. Public School Employers’ Association—and the B.C. Teachers’ Federation can hammer out a renewed contract much sooner than later, and without disruption to classrooms.

      But as Labour Day approaches, I’m also reflecting on the importance of the collective bargaining process, and how important it is to the quality of our public-school system and students’ learning conditions and opportunities.

      The BCPSEA and the BCTF have been bargaining for several months, as they try to renegotiate the teachers’ contracts that expired at the end of June. They’ve spent this last bit of summer break working with a mediator to get a deal, but progress seems to be hung up over BCPSEA’s contentious class-size and composition proposals.

      The BCTF is running ads on radio and social media accusing government of trying roll back what teachers got restored by the Supreme Court of Canada in 2016, by “gutting” their existing collective agreement guarantees on class size and composition, and the number of specialist teachers in schools.

      Unlike 2014, when the school-year start was delayed for weeks after a full-scale strike spilled over from one school year to the next, there are no immediate signs of job action that would interfere with school start up. That’s the good news.

      The bad news is that if the parties, which have been meeting all this week with a mediator, can’t reach a deal before school starts, the BCTF’s leadership may ask its members if they want to escalate with some form of job action, to pressure government to budge on its proposed concessions.

      I don’t expect a full-blown strike, at least not for some time yet. I wouldn’t be surprised, however, to see teachers vote to withdraw from administrative-type tasks that would inconvenience their employers, but wouldn’t directly affect students. In 2014, the government responded to that by docking teachers’ pay by five percent, which increased to ten percent when teachers began a series of rotating strikes in late May of that year.

      Education Minister Rob Fleming hopes that mediated talks lead to an agreement between teachers and the bargaining agent for their employers.

      What this means for students

      The school year should start off fairly smoothly, or at least as smoothly as it usually does, which is often pretty bumpy. Schools and classes should be organized and staffed in compliance with old contract language that was restored as a result of the BCTF court victory, and teachers will continue being paid what they were last year. Any raises that are negotiated will likely be paid retroactively, after a deal is struck.

      Unfortunately, schools will be operating under a cloud of uncertainty and anxiety, while bargaining continues. That’s not great. Schools, and everyone working in them, should be focused on students, and not worrying about job action, strikes, or worsening working conditions.

      In a media conference call Wednesday (August 28), Education Minister Rob Fleming wouldn’t say much about negotiations, citing the mediator's request for a news blackout, but said he’s hopeful that mediated contract talks will lead to an agreement.

      These disputes inevitably get sorted out, and teaching and learning continue, although it’s sometimes with bitterness and other times it ends up in court. Collective bargaining can be a difficult process, but without it, learning conditions for B.C. students would be far worse than they are.

      While parents and students may be frustrated about potential disruption, remember that without teachers fighting for smaller class sizes, better supports for students with special needs, and specialist teachers in schools, public schools and learning conditions would be much worse than they are now. And that wouldn’t be good for students, or for teachers.

      Collective bargaining is like democracy: it’s the worst way to do things, except for all the other ways.

      As you enjoy your Labour Day weekend, take a moment to give thanks and respect to those who have fought at bargaining tables and walked on picket lines for better working conditions. The teachers past and present who have done so have made things a lot better for students than they would have otherwise been, and they deserve our support and appreciation.

      I wish them luck at the bargaining table this time. For their sake, and for students. Here’s to a great school year for everyone heading back to class next week. 

      Update

      The day after this article was filed, the mediator halted discussions with the BCTF and the employers' bargaining agent until September 23. For details, go here.

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

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