On this day, most of the teachers chatting outside a conference room are wearing black. Black T-shirts, black shoes, black pants, or black skirts, and, in the case of B.C. Teachers’ Federation president Susan Lambert, a black scarf. That’s because these BCTF representatives are gathered at the Delta Vancouver Airport Hotel on January 27, the eve of what they call a “dark day in education”: the 10th anniversary of the Gordon Campbell government’s passage of bills 27 and 28, which cancelled provisions in their collective agreement without any consultation whatsoever.
Until January 28, 2002, the BCTF could negotiate restrictions on class size, as well as limits on the number of kids with special needs that each teacher would accept. In addition, the BCTF previously had a say on the length of the school calendar and on its members’ hours and days of work.
“All of us who have any kind of history in the B.C. Teachers’ Federation are acutely aware of that date,” Lambert tells the Georgia Straight in an interview near the hotel lobby. “Because on that date, Christy Clark, as minister of education, heralded this wonderful piece of legislation to give ‘flexibility and choice’ to parents and students. They brought in legislation to strip every shred of collective-agreement language associated with class size and composition—and to prohibit our rights to bargain class size and composition in the future.”
Last April, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Susan Griffin quashed key clauses in bills 27 and 28 as unconstitutional because they violated teachers’ charter right to freedom of association. Griffin gave the government a year to fix this situation.
Meanwhile, as the B.C. teachers’ strike moves into its sixth month, there’s no sign that the union and the B.C. Public School Employers’ Association are even close to reaching a deal after more than 70 bargaining sessions. So far, teachers’ job actions have included refusing to fill in report cards and mark provincial exams, withdrawing from meetings with administrators, and declining some supervision duties.
“We had three objectives in these talks,” Lambert explains. “Repeal the legislation that was unconstitutional, restore the language, and restore our rights to bargain. They said, ‘No, no, no.’ ”
This is where things get a little complicated. The government created a “Bill 27 and 28 table”, where the province consulted with the BCTF and BCPSEA on how to remedy the violation of teachers’ constitutional rights. There’s a separate table where the BCTF and BCPSEA, which bargains for school districts, are negotiating a new collective agreement.
BCPSEA chair Melanie Joy, a school trustee in the Kootenays, acknowledges the difficulty of negotiating a contract with teachers while the B.C. government is dealing with the fallout from the court decision. “We’re trying to keep it very straight in the public’s mind that what is on the bargaining table itself has nothing to do with class size and composition,” she says, on the line from her home in Creston. “And the BCTF’s strategy so far has been to try to mix and mingle those two because they would really like to see that back into the collective agreement.”
The BCTF, on the other hand, argues that the court decision restored its right to negotiate class size and composition—and a central objective of the current negotiations is to reinstate these issues in its collective agreement.
The government calculated in 2001 that unilaterally changing the contract would save $275 million per year. At the time, education ministry staff sent an email to Clark, then education minister, explaining that these cuts would probably lead to “significant numbers of layoffs in at least some districts”. The same email noted that parents were “apt to notice significant reductions in service levels”.
The BCTF maintains that the real purpose of gutting the contract was to save money to offset massive corporate and personal-income tax cuts. Lambert calculates the cost of the constitutional-rights “injury” to teachers at $336 million per year—or $3.36 billion over the past decade—after factoring in inflation. She adds that illegally ripping up the contract led directly to 12,500 oversized classrooms across the province.
“The teachers are saying that’s untenable in terms of their educational soundness,” she says. “It was a cost-saving measure to fulfill a platform promise of downsizing government.”
Education Minister George Abbott claims that the B.C. Supreme Court ruling doesn’t behoove the government to spend hundreds of millions of dollars “to re-create the world as it existed in 2001”. In a phone interview with the Straight, he insists that Griffin’s reasons for judgment only require the legislature to address the constitutional violation.
When asked whether limits on class size and composition will remain in the legislation, or whether they will be negotiated in the teachers’ collective agreement, Abbott responds: “That, I would say, is still a matter of discussion. I wouldn’t want to predict at this point exactly how that will be dealt with in the bill.”
Class size and composition aren’t the only contentious issues. As in many labour disputes, there’s also a significant disagreement over money. The B.C. government, which funds districts, has instructed the BCPSEA to bargain under a “net-zero mandate”.
Abbott explains that this means any contract must have no net impact on the public purse. Teachers and other public-sector workers can obtain raises, but only by making offsetting adjustments in other areas, such as sick leave or hours of work. “As an example of this, the Hospital Employees’ Union were able to make some changes to their benefit package, and the savings on that went on to providing a small increase for the nurses that they represent,” Abbott says.
The BCTF has refused to accept the net-zero mandate, claiming that it wasn’t adhered to in contracts with nurses and CUPE school-support staff, not to mention in the pay packages of school superintendents and Crown corporation CEOs.
The two sides are also far apart in their salary demands. The BCTF tabled an offer on January 17 seeking three-percent raises in each of three years, plus a three-percent “market adjustment” over the final two years. Lambert argues that with an inflation rate of 2.3 percent, a net-zero mandate translates into a pay cut for teachers.
Joy, on the other hand, characterizes the BCTF’s demands as “asking for the moon, basically”, given the province’s fiscal situation. In late November, Finance Minister Kevin Falcon projected a $3.1-billion deficit for the fiscal year ending on March 31.
“So far in discussions at the bargaining table, the employers’ position and proposals are not being discussed at all,” Joy claims.
The BCTF says its salary demands will cost $565 million, whereas the BCPSEA puts the figure at just over $2 billion over the life of the contract. Then there are different perceptions about teacher salaries. The BCTF states that a “category 5” B.C. teacher receives a minimum salary of $48,083, compared to $61,038 in Alberta, $53,551 in Ontario, $53,327 in Saskatchewan, and $52,814 in Manitoba. Overall, the BCTF claims that its members rank ninth or 10th out of 13 provinces and territories.
The BCPSEA questions these comparisons, noting that the definitions of categories for teachers vary across different jurisdictions. In comparing teacher salaries between provinces, the BCPSEA claims that BCTF members rank fourth after taking into account such things as geography and labour-market considerations. Abbott says that regardless of the rankings, teachers “will be subject to a net-zero mandate”. Their last contract, according to Abbott, included a 16-percent increase over five years.
“There is nothing I would love more than to be able to be in the same position that we were in 2006, when we had a multibillion-dollar surplus,” he notes, “and we were able to pass along the benefits of that surplus to the public servants who ably serve us, including teachers.”
The minister acknowledges that the government is prepared to funnel more benefits to teachers through the Bill 27 and 28 table, which is separate from the contract talks. Abbott says a new “class-organization fund” would inject $165 million over three years into education for kids with special needs. “The proposal was rejected outright by the teachers’ federation as inadequate,” he claims.
Lambert points out that in December, the B.C. government announced that education funding would rise by only $3 million next year, on a $5-billion budget. She also claims that even if this class-organization fund was real, it would be subject to competition between schools and districts over which kids were the most in need. Finally, she alleges that some of this money was already allocated to a recent settlement with the Canadian Union of Public Employees, which represents school-support staff.
That’s not the only thing that rankles Lambert. She also notes that the government has brought forth a binderful of clauses that it says it shouldn’t have stripped from the contract in 2002. “They’ve kidnapped these clauses and now they want us to buy them back at the bargaining table,” she alleges.
Gwen Giesbrecht, chair of the Vancouver district parent advisory council, tells the Straight by phone that some parents are frustrated by the lack of movement in negotiating a settlement.
“I heard from equal numbers of parents—those who are really upset that they weren’t going to be seeing a report card and those who didn’t put that much importance on report cards in any case,” she says. “There is some concern among parents, particularly with students that have got IEPs [individualized education plans] and the ability to consult with teachers and administrators in the same room to kind of judge how their child is going with their program. Some schools seem better at finding a strategy to get the information out than others without participating in the meetings all at the same time.”
Another member of the district parent advisory council, Ivy Leung, tells the Straight by phone that Cantonese- and Mandarin-speaking parents want a resolution, but they’re adjusting well to the situation. “If the administrators or the secretaries are doing their jobs, there’s no real complaint on this end,” she says.
Labour-relations expert Mark Thompson, a retired UBC professor, says he expects the B.C. Liberal government to pass legislation this spring ending the strike and imposing a contract on teachers. To him, this will be yet another indication that there’s a “dysfunctional” framework for negotiating contracts with teachers.
Thompson points out over the phone that a previous NDP government created the B.C. Public School Employers’ Association to negotiate provincewide contracts with teachers. Later, a B.C. Liberal government made education an essential service. As a result, BCTF members can only conduct limited job action that’s approved by the Labour Relations Board, which doesn’t put much pressure on the employer.
Kids are still going to school and those in Grade 12 are receiving marks. Teachers continue receiving their pay. And there’s no parade of protesters showing up at local board of education meetings.
“Despite the best efforts of some people in the media to persuade us that it’s a big deal, parents don’t seem to be upset,” Thompson says.
Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.