No end in sight for teachers job action

Five months into a job action B.C. teachers and the government have not gotten close to making a deal.

A British Columbia Teachers Federation (BCTF) job action that started at the beginning of the school year is now heading into its sixth month and there is no end in sight.

Recently Glen Hansman, 2nd vice president of the BCTF was in Golden to talk to members about what is happening and let people know where they are. “Basically I am answering a lot of questions just because this is the longest teachers strike in B.C. history now technically even though it isn’t a full blown withdrawal but people are doing a lot of hard thinking about what their priorities are,”  Hansman said. The main questions Hansman has been answering deal with what could happen going forward.

“What happens if there is legislation, and this isn’t a partisan message, under this government as well as the NDP and the Socreds, we have had collective agreements imposed upon us. Teachers have taken zeros many times in the past and people are feeling very frustrated with the assumption that we should again this round too,” Hansman said.

Recently the BCTF made an offer that was almost immediately shot down by Minister of Education George Abbott.

“There is public posturing. I wouldn’t expect a minister of education to say otherwise on day one of receiving a package…usually you put a salary figure on the table at the very end. In the normal course of bargaining there’s money available, and you have to see what you get and see where you are at overall. But given the fact that government has been consistently coming to the bargaining table empty-handed and reiterating that it is net zero and nothing else. Then we figured that we should start talking more publicly about what we are trying to achieve for our members,” Hansman said.

Minister Abbott held a press conference after receiving the offer in which he stated, “We still remain hundreds of millions of dollars apart on this.”

Abbott said that B.C. teachers have not taken zeros in recent years and, “They concluded through a successful agreement in 2006, an agreement of about 16 percent all in, including a generous signing bonus. It is interesting on what is being proposed here today is approximately the same.”

From his perspective Hansman said that since the last agreement in 2006 teachers in B.C. have seen their salaries drop from third in Canada to ninth. Hansmen said that for teachers in Golden this meant they could move to Banff or Calgary with the same qualifications and earn $21,000 more a year. He added that this gap is “quite ridiculous. It is not ok to be telling people it is supply and demand, if you don’t like it, suck it up and move to Alberta.”  Hansman stressed that the last offer made by the teachers federation would in no way catch the teachers in B.C. up to other parts of the country but it would at least be a cost of living adjustment to keep up with inflation and provide a partial catch up to some of the other provinces in the country.

Abbott explained although the latest offer may be less unreasonable than what we have seen previously it still remains hugely at odds with the net zero mandate which the government has at this challenging troubled economic time that we have. “The challenge remains that we have a net zero mandate for all of our collective bargaining discussions at the provincial level. We have signed many agreements with public servants in the province with a net zero mandate and I know a lot of unions, most recently CUPE,  have worked very hard to find a way to get to an agreement that benefits their members but yet retains the principal of net zero,” he said.

Bob Wilson is the President of the Golden Teachers Association. He felt it was important to note the job action was not something the teachers decided to do on the spur of the moment.

“Teachers don’t take job actions very lightly. Since our contracts were stripped in 2002 teachers have worked really hard to keep things going as much as possible in the best interest of kids. As supports have dropped away because of funding we have picked up more of the slack,” Wilson said.

He said in some ways the teachers’ job has become more difficult during the action because of the fact they are not talking to administration. “Teachers in Golden found it quite an insult when our employer went to the labour board and tried to get a variance on our job action so they could claim back 15 percent of our salaries from the union. When teachers heard they thought that they were working 15 percent less in fact we are working harder this year than we have in the past.”

Hansman also spoke of some other areas where teachers are not the same as other provinces. He pointed out that teachers in Ontario currently have 240 minutes of prep time whereas teachers in B.C. only earn 90 minutes in elementary schools. He also conceded that the teachers know that not every priority can be the number one priority but it was the government’s turn to give something. “It is not bargaining when one side only comes with zero and are expecting something back from us,” he said.  Hansman also added that learning conditions in B.C. have also fallen behind other provinces over the years and that is something else which will have to be resolved. “There is no reason why this can’t be worked out. When government identifies something as a priority it seems to find the money,” he said. “Nobody wants to be doing this. Teachers aren’t revelling being in this job action. Teachers would prefer that all this was resolved and we are trying our best to put forward offers that are reasonable.”

An ending to the action does not seem to be close at the present time. “We remain apart with the teacher federation. They’ve taken some of their previous numbers and narrowed them down. Perhaps as we look at the specific costing here we may see some narrowing of the chasm that has existed between the TF’s expectations and what we are able to put on the table.” He went on  and said he did not emerge from this (the latest offer) with any sense of optimism but obviously there’s work to be done at the bargaining table and that he was happy to discuss issues at the bargaining table other than the net zero.

Columbia River-Revelstoke MLA Norm Macdonald,  who is a former teacher and principal, said the BC Liberals have done a poor job looking after the education system in the province.

“I think that Minister Abbott signalled before the negotiations began that it was going to end with legislation. There is of course a huge history here. The teachers negotiation are always complexed because they represent a significant cost. Education is one of the most important responsibilities that the provincial government has, it is a worthwhile investment but it is a significant one, “ Macdonald said. He went on to say that over the past 10 years the government has not had a good relationship with the teachers due to broken promises and entered these negotiations with no intention of addressing any of the items the teachers wanted to negotiate.

“I see no sign that there has been any change in the governments side since the beginning of the negotiations. It leads you to a place where you believe from the beginning they intended to use the hammer of legislation…as they have tried to do in the past,” Macdonald said.

As for how long the job action will continue and whether the provincial government will bring in legislature to end it, everyone had various opinions on what could happen.

“Teachers are very patient. January 28 is the 10 year anniversary of Bills 27 and 28. That was the legislation that in April of last year the courts ruled to be unconstitutional. It was the legislation that Christy Clark introduced when she was the Minister of Education. That legislation removed all reference to class size. Class composition, that’s the mix of kids in the class, service levels for kids with special needs. It was a whole gambit of things and it was all taken away. Those were things that teachers had accepted zero percent increases.” Hansman said.

Abbott said, “My concerns are, I guess many in terms of the ongoing dispute. I’ve said a number of times that I have a deep concern about an entire school year passing without children and their parents having the opportunity for a report card telling how they are doing. We know that in some cases teachers have made an effort to contact parents and tell them what is going on,” Abbott said. “We also know, and these are documented, many cases where parents are not getting any idea of how their kids are doing. So this is a big concern for me.”

He went on and said, “We are coming up to the one year anniversary on March 1 of discussion between the employer and the Teacher’s Federation. We have not made significant progress over that year.” As for work on Bills 27 and 28 Abbott said, “The issues around Bills 27 and 28, it had been my hope with my experience with Bill 29 and our discussion with the nurses union and with the hospital employees union that we would reach at some point a consensual agreement with the teachers federation on Bills 27 and 28…Our discussions with the TF have been pretty much as unproductive as have been the discussions at the collective bargaining table.”

Wilson also wanted students, who are preparing to graduate and possibly move on to a post secondary institution next year, to know that teachers will make sure the students get the grades they need for scholarships or post secondary schools. Wilson also said that for parents who want to know how the students are doing they should contact their child’s teacher.

Macdonald felt that for the sake of the students things would have been much better if the government had entered negotiations with a plan to negotiate rather than sitting back and not willing to budge. He went on and said it should be the provincial government’s passion to provide the best education they could for the students but currently it is the teachers alone who are trying to stand up for the students. “We have one of the best education systems in the world but you cannot continuously undermine it as the BC Liberals have done,” Macdonald said. “I think they have been sending the message for the past 10 years. It is highly adversarial. There is no question that the BC Liberals see the teachers as the enemy. They will try to differentiate by saying it is the union and not the individual teachers,” Macdonald said. “The BC Liberals have always been consistently anti-teacher.” Macdonald said that the BC Liberals have a pattern of not showing respect for the teachers of what they do.