Tentative agreement reached between B.C. government and teachers

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A tentative agreement has been reached between the BC Teachers' Federation and the B.C. government. Details are being communicated to members and a ratification vote of teachers will be held on Thursday, September 18. If teachers vote to accept, schools could be back in full operation early next week.

The teacher strike has been on for four months, although for two of those months most schools would ordinarily be closed for summer holidays.

Negotiations have been ongoing for some 18 months and the last contract expired more than a year ago.

For most of that time, the government was unwilling to negotiate unless the union first agreed to be in the "zone of affordability." This zone was unilaterally defined by government as its position in bargaining with all the provincial public sector unions.  Public sector workers in municipalities received about twice the percentage of wage increases compared to unions covered by the province, according to a recent analysis.

The BCTF had long ago reduced its salary increase to be close to what the government was demanding. 

The turning point was when teachers voted by 99.4 per cent to agree to binding arbitration and reopen schools.

The government refused arbitration, despite calls from parents and much of the media. The polls made it clear the public blamed the Liberal government more than the BCTF for the impasse. When they rejected arbitration, the government was left with finally having to negotiate and make some moves from its rigid positions.

A major sticking point from the BCTF side was a provision known as E80. This was a demand by government that the BCTF give up any gains that eventually come from a court case that the BCTF has won twice in the B.C. Supreme Court. These decisions are based on workers being guaranteed the right to collective bargaining under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. 

The B.C. government in 2002, under Christy Clark as education minister (now premier), brought in legislation that arbitrarily eliminated from the teacher collective agreement all the provisions that determined class sizes, class composition (the maximum number of students with special needs in a class) and staffing formulas, along with dozens of other clauses.

The B.C. Supreme Court ruled the legislation illegal and reinstated the 2002 language in the current collective agreement. However, the province appealed, seeking to have the two judgements overruled by a higher court. The Appeal Court determined that the application of the judgement -- reinstating the clauses -- would be held in abeyance pending an Appeal court decision. Hearings are scheduled for mid-October.

In bargaining, the government wanted teachers to give up any gains in working and learning conditions that might accrue from Appeal Court or Supreme Court of Canada decisions in the future.

After the government agreed to remove E80 from the table it was possible to reach the tentative agreement on many other issues.

As is obvious from a dozen years of contention over these collective agreement provisions and their role as a sticking point in negotiations, the issues are important.

For teachers, it is a matter of the conditions in their classrooms. The government has saved more than $3 billion over 12 years by removing the staffing provisions from the collective agreement. This allowed them to underfund and to increase the number of students with special needs in ever-larger classes.

The principles involved are also of significant importance to the entire labour movement in Canada. In the Health Services case in B.C. (also from gutting a collective agreement in 2002), the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees collective bargaining rights to workers. Several other unions are now pursuing court cases based on this principle.

The right to collective bargaining is now firmly established by the courts, but how that right applies to specific issues is yet to be determined. The BCTF case will be one that helps define its application.

Not abrogating the court wins was a key factor in keeping alive the future impact on classroom conditions, but also the labour rights of all workers covered by collective agreements. This is what the Supreme Court of Canada said in the Health Services case:

"Recognizing that workers have the right to bargain collectively as part of their freedom to associate reaffirms the value of dignity, personal autonomy, equality and democracy that are inherent in the Charter."

Larry Kuehn is the BC Teachers' Federation's Director of Research and Technology.

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