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No winners in sight for B.C. teacher strike

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As I survey the battered, teacher-government battleground, I'm reminded of Oliver Hardy's oft-repeated words to his bumbling accomplice Stan Laurel: "Well, here's another fine mess you've gotten us into."

For indeed, it is a mess, more of a mess than any of the many previous confrontations between the province's 30,000 teachers and whoever holds the reins of power in Victoria. In my view, the teachers have legitimate grievances, but they have managed to wind up on an indefinite picket line against a government that, for the first time, is prepared to leave them out there, while gratefully pocketing millions and millions of dollars in salary savings.

At the same time, the war of words between the parties could drive a smiley face to despair. Christy Clark and Education Minister Peter Fassbender seem to do nothing but enhance teacher bitterness with every public utterance, while B.C. Teachers' Federation president Jim Iker resorts to tiresome rhetoric ("Christy Clark's lockout"….zzzzz) and pointless complaints about such irrelevancies as the government's alleged failure to engage in "24/7 bargaining" on a pivotal weekend before the all-out strike. The only saving grace of the surprisingly long time it's taking to corral a mediator is the refreshing silence that has fallen over the combatants.

Over at the bargaining table, the BCTF has, as usual, persisted in demanding unachievable gains long past their due date. All that does is give the government, which has been more inflexible than the teachers, the easy public relations out of costing teacher demands into the stratosphere. Nor is the situation helped by the BCTF tradition of allowing union members to sit in on most negotiating sessions, which often produces more grandstanding than actual bargaining. On the other side, the government, for all its demands that the teachers get real, barely budges on anything, despite Christy Clark's stated willingness to bargain until the end of time…

The latest descent into the Twilight Zone was the ham-fisted attempt to involve miracle mediator Vince Ready. His name was trotted out and highly publicized before he'd even been asked if he were available. There's little doubt Ready would have dropped everything and ridden in on his white horse, if he felt a settlement were within sniffing distance. But after talking to Jim Iker, and then to government negotiator Peter Cameron, he told the parties he was "too busy".

I blame the government for most of the turmoil, beginning with that fateful, unilateral decision in 2002 to wipe out class size and composition limits from their negotiated contract. The stout defense of the move by a certain Education Minister, Christy Clark, is available here.  Since then, B.C Supreme Court Justice Susan Griffin has twice ruled the government acted illegally and ordered them to undo the damage. So far, the government has done almost nothing to comply. Instead, the government has treated those court decisions as little more than some sort of esoteric inconvenience, reminiscent of the province's long-standing, cavalier attitude towards aboriginal title, maintained until the courts finally forced the cold, hard, expensive reality upon them. Not only that, the same government that ignores the courts has the nerve to constantly hound the teachers' union to be reasonable at the bargaining table.  Yet few, beyond the usual suspects, seem to call them to account for this audacious display of chutzpah.

 

 

Once again, however, the BCTF has trouble doing itself any favours. Replete with negotiators who are elected, rather than hired, the union has a long history of being difficult to deal with. In part, this is because those perceived to be moderate or open to compromise or too close to the philosophy of Rodney "can't we all get along" King run the risk of being drummed off the executive at election time. With the public sector pattern staring them in the face, the teachers have come down mightily on their basic wage demands, but on other issues, they still find it difficult to compromise, holding to the belief that negotiations are about getting what we deserve, rather than striking a deal both sides can live with.

And the union has stuck to its strike strategy devised early in the year -- Phase One, no administration meetings. Phase Two, rotating walkouts. Phase Three, all-out strike -- despite aggressive new tactics (lockouts, wage cuts) by the government and no willingness to legislate them back to work. This appears to be putting more pressure on teachers, themselves, than the folks in Victoria. With no election until 2017, the government is sitting back, seemingly waiting for the teachers to surrender.

While that may be good for the government's obsession with balancing the budget and its long-held dream of bringing the militant BCTF to heel, it's hardly good for education in this province. Those are real teachers on the picket, not leaders of the BCTF, which get all the media attention. The increased stress and workload they experience in the classroom is real, too. But there is little recognition of this by the government, little appreciation that the responsibilities of teachers are different from other public sector workers. There's no reward, no attempt to make teachers feel good about what they do. Instead, it's mostly sanctimonious sound-bites about the need for the teachers' union to be "reasonable". And of course, that means being "reasonable" on the government's terms.

The other night in the bar, I bumped into a teacher after their big union rally at Canada Place. She was a reminder once again, if such a reminder were really needed, how committed and passionate most teachers are towards their duties and their charges in the classroom. "Despite what Christy Clark says, it really is about the kids," she told me, with that earnest look teachers have. She was referring to a recent unfortunate comment by the former education minister and current premier. "It's all about money -- It's never about the quality of education," Clark warbled on the radio. "We're never talking about the kids." I wonder if the premier knows, or even cares, how much anger and resentment that kind of remark causes among the thousands of good, solid teachers this province has entrusted to educate our young people.

My teacher in the bar explained how the downsizing of resources to assist students with special needs shortchanges her regular students, as well, because of the extra attention she has to give those few others. "We need help. That's what I'm fighting for," she said. "I'm worn out. If it was just for the money, I wouldn't be on strike."

But sadly, she holds meagre hope the dispute will end in victory, despite voting ‘yes' for a strike. "The government used different tactics this time. They played hardball, and we didn't seem to notice," she said. "We just went straight ahead, as if nothing had changed." When I suggested that had put them on an indefinite walkout at the end of the school year, with no strike pay and little pressure on a resolute government that is replenishing its coffers every day the strike goes on, she sighed in agreement.

That's the tragedy of this unfortunate, protracted dispute. It really isn't about the obdurate BCTF and a hard-nosed government, determined to spend as little on education as possible to maintain its self-proclaimed bottom-line. It's about all those individual teachers in the classroom, to whom we entrust the education of our young people.  While it's tempting -- very tempting — to blame the stridency of the BCTF for everything, there are two sides in this war, and for most of the past 12 years (the Carole Taylor-engineered contract the lone respite), the B.C. government has been engaged in its own offensive, taking a hard line on class size/composition, trying to provoke a strike (according to Madame Justice Griffin) and doling out minimal pay increases, when they are doled out at all.

Yet, as my teacher in the bar noted, the BCTF's strategy in this latest showdown appears to have left union members in a precarious situation. Government negotiator Peter Cameron, who honed his bargaining skill in days of yore as a militant union leader, has arguably outmaneuvered the BCTF.

It would be remiss, however, not to point out that it's hardly an easy situation for the BCTF. Cameron holds almost all the cards. On wages, he merely has to stick to the bargaining mandate already imposed by the government and accepted by other public sector unions, adding nothing more than a few nips and tucks here and there. I think even I could do that. And on the more critical class size/composition matter, the government has simply held firm to its original offer. Cameron would have given his prized sweater collection to have had a deck stacked so much in his favour during the days he negotiated against the province's tough mining companies.

Teachers deserve better.

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