Premier Christy Clark announced a review of teacher bargaining Wednesday, with a goal of reaching a 10-year agreement that would put an end to decades of battles with the B.C. Teachers’ Federation.
Clark and Education Minister Don McRae acknowledged at a Vancouver news conference that changing the culture of confrontation between the B.C. government and teachers won’t be easy, and vowed to put even the most contentious issues on the table for discussion. That includes class size and special needs support, key issues in contract disputes and court actions in recent years.
“Our first goal is long-term labour stability with teachers in British Columbia,” Clark said. “Our second goal is to improve how government interacts and works with the BCTF.”
“These two goals will require compromise on all sides of the table, including ours,” said Clark.
BCTF president Susan Lambert said she welcomes the review of the bargaining structure, but is skeptical about the latest promise of meaningful consultation.
“It seems to me that talk of a 10-year contract is putting the cart before the horse,” Lambert said. “There seems to be conclusions drawn that would be properly a product of the bargaining table and not a product of a discussion on the bargaining structure.”
The offer comes as the BCTF continues a court challenge to a two-year wage freeze that extends until June 2013. After a year of fruitless negotiations and work-to-rule by teachers, the union membership endorsed the two-year contract extension reached in June with government-imposed mediator Charles Jago.
Justin Green, president of the Nanaimo District Teachers’ Association, said the union welcomes any consultation on bargaining structure, but if the province wants to build relationships with teachers, it can start by giving teachers back language that was stripped from contracts 10 years ago.
Last year, a B.C. Supreme Court judge ruled parts of the 2002 legislation that removed certain working and learning conditions clauses, such as limits on class size and the number of special needs students in each class from teachers’ collective agreements, violated teachers’ rights to freedom of association under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The court gave the province a year to fix it.
The union interpreted this decision to mean that these clauses would be returned to their contracts, but last spring, the province came out with Bill 22, which kept these limits in legislation until next July, when teachers once again have the right to bargain them.
Green said when two parties meet more than 70 times and aren’t able to come to an agreement, the system is broken, but the mandate played a big role in this – the employers came to the table with a net zero mandate.
“I’m optimistic they’re at least willing to talk about it,” he said. “But based on the history of this government, I’m cynical. What I sincerely hope doesn’t happen is we do a six-week consult and have something legislated and rammed through.”
Jamie Brennan, school board chairman, said last year the system was disrupted by teacher job action for the entire year because the province had previously taken away the right to strike, tipping the scales slightly in favour of the province.
But he is hopeful that the province can come up with a better system.
McRae said the review will take advantage of work currently being done by a task force of school trustees, and two previous reviews completed by independent mediators.
McRae said he has talked with Lambert about the proposal, and he wants to have consultations with teachers, trustees, parent advisory councils and administrators complete by the end of November.
“If there are policy changes or legislative amendments that we need to make, we want to get this work done before bargaining resumes next spring,” McRae said.