The teacher tango 

click to enlarge PHOTO BY GUSTAVO FRAZAO/WWW.SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
  • Photo by Gustavo Frazao/WWW.SHUTTERSTOCK.COM

It feels like summer is just around the corner. Our kids are dreaming of days at the lake, afternoons on the cross-country trails and that feeling of freedom that one only gets when school's out for summer.

But while students might be relaxing the school system that supports them will be hard at work: The teachers' union and their employer will be at the bargaining table trying to hammer out a new contract.

Historically this has never been a smooth process. It's been 32 years since teachers were granted the right to strike. There were 48 strikes and three lockouts under "local bargaining" from 1987 to 1994, three strikes disrupting 14 days of school since 1995, three legislated contracts, one legislated "cooling off period" and two negotiated deals under "provincial bargaining" since 1994.

In 2014 there was a six-week strike. At the end of it a six-year deal was struck, which included a 7.25-per-cent salary increase, improvements in extended health benefits and the teaching-on-call rates, as well as a $400-million education fund to hire specialist teachers. It also provided an additional $105 million for dispatching of retroactive grievances. The settlement was the lengthiest ever reached, but it will expire on June 20.

Part way through this contract, in 2016, the nation's highest court restored deleted provisions in the contract around class size and composition and the landscape of the education system and the classroom faced significant change as a result. This was the result of a 14-year court battle waged by the teacher's union, the B.C. Teachers' Federation (BCTF). Since the decision, B.C. has hired 3,700 new teachers to meet the requirement of the ruling and boosted its education budget $580 million to $6.6 billion. There are 43,000 teachers in B.C.—and we need another 1,000 according to the union.

As we get into the thick of bargaining, dealing with the language around class size and composition restored to the contract is going to be key.

Some of the challenge will flow from the lack of uniformity in the system. There are 60 school districts in B.C. Of those, 40 have some sort of class composition rules, while the other 20 have none at all. What the government would like to see in this round of negotiations is for the system to be more equitable with districts that have strong language about class size and composition concede some of this thereby reducing costs so that other districts can share the wealth and get more teacher resources for the students. The BCTF would like all districts to have strong class composition rules.

Then there is the age-old bargaining around pay. The government is looking for the same deal it has secured with other public sector unions in recent months, two per cent in each of the next three years. (There is pressure to achieve this on the government side as the unions negotiated a "me-too" clause guaranteeing matching funds if another union scores a richer deal.) The BCTF is considering this but it is also looking for the teacher-wage grid to be condensed so that educators get to the higher wage brackets faster, along with other concessions.

There is a certain irony in the fact the NDP government, long the champion of the BCTF is now fighting with it over the class size and composition language, which it says is out of date and unwieldy—the very same thing the previous Liberal government claimed.

That there is uncertainty as both sides move forward in bargaining goes without saying. It is unlikely that the BCTF will concede on the restored language after such a lengthy court battle, nor will it budge much on pay increases. After all, two per cent is nothing more than a cost of living adjustment—it is not a salary increase.

But neither can the government concede to a contract that might have cost implications with other unions and a bottom line that might have taxpayers seeing red.

Let us hope that this is not a summer of discontent for the two sides in this historically fraught relationship, and that school is back in session come September.

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