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It takes two: B.C. government needs to negotiate with teachers

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There is an old saying that it takes two to tango. A variation on that is equally true when it comes to collective bargaining -- it takes two to reach an agreement. Unfortunately, in the latest round of talks between teachers and the government, the government has been missing in action at the bargaining table.

To seasoned bargainers the government's plan is clear. Attack the teachers publicly and claim they are not 'realistic,' while you sit back, watch the schools shut down and offer nothing to solve the dispute.

This plan is really obvious when we look at the issue of class size and composition. This is the single biggest issue in this current dispute, and yet it is painfully clear the government, after 16 months of bargaining, have not put one single dime on the table to get the issue resolved.  

The BCTF is asking for a return of the teachers and resources that were guaranteed in their collective agreement until 2002. This seems reasonable considering the government did not negotiate them away, they legislated them away. An action that was declared illegal by the B.C. Supreme Court -- twice!

In 2011 the court ordered the B.C. Liberal government to fix the problem and they refused. Back to court again, and in January of 2014 the judge not only ordered it fixed, but she put the original language guaranteeing smaller classes and special education teachers back in the collective agreement.

To satisfy the court ruling and remedy the government's illegal actions in 2002, the BC Teachers' Federation is suggesting a two pronged approach: 1) funding to bring the class composition levels back in-line with 2002, and 2) funding to address the impact of the government's illegal actions on teachers.

To the first issue, the BCTF has an opening position of $225 million annually to address class size and compositions. Is this too much? Are they on another planet? Not if you believe government's own memos and court testimony.

Ironically, it was Christy Clark, then education minister, who engineered the illegal contract stripping in order to save money. An email from her staff in 2001 laid out the plan and the consequences in black and white: "The budget now shows a projected reduction of 6,300 FTE's. We also agree that there will be noticeable service reductions and alterations as a result of the downsizing. Parents are apt to notice significant reductions in service levels."

How much was the government going to save by firing teachers and increasing class size? The Treasury Board pegged the savings at $275 million per year (in 2001 dollars) in a memo entitled "Fiscal implications of Proposed Legislative Changes." This figure was later confirmed in court testimony by government officials.

The BCTF's opening position is below the government's own calculations.

What needs to be made clear here is that teachers are not bargaining for more money for themselves -- they are bargaining for better learning conditions for our children. By ignoring two B.C. Supreme Court rulings and refusing to negotiate on this issue, the only people the government is hurting are our kids.

On the second issue regarding grievances stemming from the government's illegal actions, the BCTF have suggested a $225 million fund to cover compensation for those teachers impacted.

Another unrealistic demand? Hardly. The government's own negotiator Peter Straschuk testified in court that the cost of owed compensation is $500 million -- more than double what the teachers are asking. Despite the obvious reasonableness of the BCTF's demand, the government has not moved one inch or dropped one penny on the table.  

Everyday we hear the government claim that the "greedy" teachers are asking for way too much money. 

The BCTF is asking for a wage lift of eight per cent over five years, or less than two per cent a year --- and the government is offering seven per cent over six years (to meet the 'pattern' of other public sector agreements). Perhaps Minister Fassbender should review his own government's document that confirms teachers were below the pattern for the years between 2002/2003 and 2011/2012. The government document, "Working Together for Students," declares that teachers fell two per cent behind the average public sector increases during the decade. If government acknowledges in their own study that teachers are behind, why doesn't their current offer takes this into account?

In the end it is all about priorities.

The B.C. Liberal government has taken us from a 'have' to a 'have not' province when it comes to education funding for our kids. In fact, six years ago we spent slightly above the national average on education. Today we spend $1,000 per student less than the national average. Simply funding to the average in Canada would provide an additional $543 million a year in educational funding!

It is time for Premier Clark to make our children a priority and bring the necessary funding to the table to ensure our teachers get a fair deal and our kids are supported in the classroom.

Many believe the actions of the government (or lack of them) indicate they are happy to save money and leave our teachers and kids out on the street past Labour Day. That would be a bad idea. So much for the stability the government claims they want.

The BCTF has asked for mediation to get this dispute settled now. But the government, in keeping with the strategy of not bargaining and blaming teachers, has refused to participate in mediation without setting unrealistic preconditions on the process.

Minister Fassbender says the government is ready to bargain 24/7. Maybe he could start with a couple of hours where the government actually does something serious -- like show a little respect for teachers, accept genuine mediation and finally put a real offer on the table. He needs to be reminded that compromise must come from both sides.

Teachers have moved a mile, while the government hasn't moved an inch. 

Jim Sinclair is President of the British Columbia Federation of Labour, the umbrella organization that represents 54 unions and 450,000 private and public sector employees in the province.

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This piece was originally published July 2, 2014 in the Vancouver Sun.

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