Pique n' your interest 

Essential circuses

I’m know I’m asking for trouble, but here goes:

I support the Liberal government in their recent decision to restore education as an essential service under the Labour Code "to ensure that no child’s right to an education is denied during school strikes and lockouts." The same labour code provision existed between 1987 and 1992.

Although I don’t like the idea of any group being denied collective bargaining rights or the right to strike, it could be argued the unions representing teachers and school support workers in many ways brought this legislation upon themselves. By exercising the right to strike in the past, to secure everything from higher wages to smaller classroom sizes, they seem to have alienated the taxpaying public – they voted Liberal, didn’t they?

And now it’s turned into a numbers game that it would take Grade 12 Calculus to understand.

According to the Ministry of Skill Development and Labour, B.C. students have lost over four million student days in the past 10 years because of labour disputes.

"Fundamentally, it is about ensuring that no child’s right to education takes a back seat to a labour dispute," said Labour Minister Graham Bruce.

According to the B.C. Teachers’ Federation, those numbers are grossly misleading: while over four million student days were lost, they say, almost one billion student days were taught. In other words, "99.6 per cent of the total days were taught and only 0.4 per cent were lost because of labour disputes," according to a BCTF backgrounder on essential service legislation. "Over the last nine years B.C. students have lost less than one day of schooling – 0.81 days to be precise – due to strikes. That translates into only 27 minutes per year."

Huh?

The government got its numbers by multiplying the number of students in school since 1992 by the number of strike days. The BCTF got its numbers by multiplying the number of students in school since 1992 by the number of school days.

And never the twain shall meet.

My main objection to teacher strikes is the effect they have on students. For some of the students in middle grades, a strike is nothing more than a holiday – would that it would last forever! For younger students, it means that a parent has to stay home from work or they have to fork out for day care in addition to the taxes they pay for schooling. For others, especially those students in the upper grades who have college and university to think about, a strike is a huge inconvenience.

The unions appear to know this, and always seem to call for strikes during the most inconvenient times possible. Parents, worried about what might be at stake for their children, then plead with the government to end the strike.

The unions are accused of holding the students hostage in the negotiations, and I’ve yet to hear a suitable rebuttal to this allegation.

Is there any reason that the collective bargaining process can’t take place during the summer? I know it’s prime vacation time for teachers, but if the unions and federations are sincere in their desire to teach, summer negotiations would be a good way to show it.

Right now B.C. teachers don’t have a contract – and when do negotiations start? On Aug. 28, less than a week before the kids head back to school.

"With a stroke of the pen, the provincial government has undermined labour rights that are protected in international law and held as standards worldwide," said BCTF president David Chudnovsky.

Front and centre in these negotiations will be the reinstatement of education as an essential service under the Labour Code, and the government’s attempt to get some flexibility in classroom sizes.

Classroom sizes were limited to just 20 kids in Kindergarten, and to 22 kids in Grades 1 through 3 in the province to allow teachers to spend more time with each student in these critical years. Unfortunately human reproduction isn’t guided by any such principles, and some years there are just more kids than others. Rather than allow flexibility, school boards have been put in a position where they’ve had to bus students up to an hour away to find room for them – keeping even one extra student at the neighbourhood school would mean hiring another teacher and finding a classroom.

The City of North Vancouver estimates that classroom limits cost them an additional $4.7 million last year. In the province, it also added 700 teachers to the payroll, and added an estimated $75 million in costs to the budget.

The timing of the negotiations couldn’t be worse. Without a contract, even with the changes to the Labour Code, teachers are free to walk off the job at any time this fall – no contract means no obligations. In the last contract, there were no salary increases above and beyond two per cent in 2000, so the government is also concerned that salary will be an issue in the next round.

The BCTF will be negotiating from a position of strength, but against a government that faces a $5 billion loss unless it can get public spending under wraps and increase corporate investment in the province. Neither party can really afford to back down.

Which is really too bad for the students. See you at the pool hall.

— Andrew Mitchell

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