Politics, teachers and public education in B.C.

BCTF President Susan Lambert & Minister of Education George Abbott

We are lucky in BC to have good teachers and an excellent school system. Teachers work extremely hard, frequently under difficult conditions. My three children went through the Vancouver public school system and I can attest to the dedication of their teachers and the good overall results the teachers achieved.

George Abbott, the Minister of Education has a reputation as a reasonable person. With his own classroom experience and a strong interest in cooperation, one of his first acts was to give the BCTF head, Susan Lambert his cell phone number – a first apparently. Their relationship started well, but foundered on the same bargaining rock that has plagued BCTF/ provincial relationships over the past half century.

In a way it's a non-partisan history. Moe Sihota, the current president of the BC NDP was the Minister of Labour in 1998 when the teachers were last legislated back to work. In fact the only recent negotiated agreement was in 2006 during the set of fairly generous pre-Olympics contracts under Premier Gordon Campbell which carried the province through Feb/ March of 2010.

The province has the goal of reducing the deficit to zero a year from now. (It's $2.5b this year and forecast at $968m for the upcoming year.) The public is generally on side with a balanced budget. Achieving that goal means pulling in spending all round.

Most public sector unions are working within a net zero framework. Their Olympic contracts expired in 2010 and their members have not had a raise since. The teachers' 2006 contract, worth 16% overall, went a year longer than other public sector contracts. With its expiry, teachers enter the same net zero environment as their other public sector colleagues.

However, in spite of the fairly clear goals, many settled public sector contracts, and 78 face to face meetings between the negotiating teams, the prospect of a settlement seems to have advanced not a whit. The teachers' job action has lasted 6 months and both government and parents are losing patience. Legislation is proposed for later this week.

So why are the sides butting heads so badly? Why no progress at all?

It's clear to me that the BCTF has to move. Their wage demands are impossible for the government to fulfill without invoking the "me too" clauses in other public sector contracts. The overall cost would be about $2b, an amount the government can't possibly agree to.  To compound the challenge, the BCTF demands relating to benefits are over the top and losing public support for their cause.

At the same time, the government needs to find room to help with some of the more difficult problems faced by teachers. Many teachers are in classrooms with hard-to-handle kids, each needing their own curriculum and perhaps having serious behaviour problems. They take on massive challenges and need the appropriate support.

Will either government or the BCTF be able to move so as to come to a negotiated settlement? Would a mediator, as signalled by Minister Abbott, be helpful? I suspect the legislation will be passed and all the old resentments and difficulties will remain. No one seems to be able to take themselves out of the old paradigm.

The NDP, the union party, have avoided participating in the debate at all, except to pull out their favourite whipping boys, the Convention Centre and BC Place Stadium, and somehow blame them for all the problems.

When asked in the Legislature the other day as to their position, the NDP to a person refused to answer. Their silence was deafening. So no one knows, will they go with net zero and fiscal prudence, or will they support tax increases to fund BCTF demands, with all the consequences that brings to agreements already signed with other unions?

The danger in all of this is the undermining of confidence in the BC public school system. Have a look at this BCTF ad: 

Does it make you feel good about our school system? The BCTF campaign is good for private schools, which are bursting at the seams, but not for public education.

In all of this debate, I have seen no discussion about actual overall education outcomes. Fear mongering yes, actual outcomes, no. Not from the province, nor from the BCTF. Yet that is what society is most interested in. How are our children doing?

With no resolution in sight, no prospect of good relations in the near future, and unsettling public relations campaigns, where does that leave our schools?

Good public education is the key to a democratic and prosperous society.  Undermining it serves no one, and supporting it helps all of us. We have a good system in BC, may it remain that way.

Additional reading

See here for a concise account of BCTF/ Prov of BC negotiations since 1994.

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  • Bill

    It’s clear from the BCTF response to mediation that they are not interested in trying to negotiate a settlement and only want to escalate conflict with the government. I don’t think it is any coincidence that two of the last three presidents have ended up representing the NDP.

  • K Taylor

    It is obvious that the BCTF went into bargaining from day one intending to strike. I will post a May 2011 bargaining bulletin distributed by the BCTF as proof of that; it goes deep into why a strike is a good “investment” and how it is worth $300K over the long haul for a teacher to picket.

    As we all know, the BCTF started bargaining in March 2011, just a month prior to this bulletin coming out; and then they announced over the summer that they refused to come to the table, September they annouced “limited job action”. Their bulletin in May discusses a full withdrawal of services.

    This is entirely about breaking net zero, for the union. The union gets a 16% across the board bump in their budgets with a 16% across the board wage increase. If wages remain at 0% growth, their budgets will raise as automatic pay grid bumps happen with years of service milestones, but at the same time the most senior of teachers will retire and be replaced with lower-earning rookies at the bottom of the grid.

    The BCTF is petrified that there are so many old teachers edging closer to retirement; they will be unable to afford their bloated political action funds and wide variety of social activism causes when all those with 20+ years of service start retiring and coming off the grid. 4% union dues on $45k are a lot less than 4% union dues on $78k.

    Read the bulletin. I originally had posted the actual document on my facebook wall ( Occupy BCTF ) and on twitter, and the BCTF had this puppy removed within hours. Lucky for Google Cache.