Teacher talks have a history of futility
There’s a reason for the minimal reaction to the festering contract dispute in B.C. schools. The dispute involves one of the biggest public sector contracts in B.C. and a high-visibility service. You would think even the measured workto-rule campaign teachers have launched would provoke a bit more public reaction than it has.
But despite the best efforts of us in the media to whip things up, there’s not much going on. People have seen this movie so many times they can’t get excited anymore at the plot turns.
It’s like those people who go to the Rocky Horror Picture Show over and over. It’s mildly amusing to recite the dialogue along with the actors, but it’s hardly exciting by this point.
In the long, tangled history of negotiations between the teachers and the school employers, the two sides have struck a deal once.
That was in 2006, when they signed a five-year deal about an hour before the previous contract expired. Even that process included accusations of bad-faith bargaining, a strike vote and a request for round-the-clock negotiations.
Prior to that, it’s an unbroken record of futility.
The problem has engaged the attention of a number of experts who have recommended fixes. But no government has done much of anything.
There’s even a new book by former Uvic professor Thomas Fleming that’s partly about the relationship between the government and the B.C. Teachers’ Federation. No one would be writing books about education bargaining in B.C. if it worked properly.
In negotiations prior to the last contract, the two sides spent fruitless months arguing and taking each other to the Labour Relations Board and to court before the government finally imposed a settlement. It extended the existing contract, which sparked a wildcat strike that landed the BCTF a contempt of court citation and a $500,000 fine.
In the round before that, they started talks in the spring of 2001. By November they had endured 60 negotiating sessions and accomplished next to nothing. The government imposed another settlement, this one so onerous that the BCTF fought it to the Supreme Court of Canada, and won.
In 1998, under the NDP government, negotiations stalled and the government legislated a settlement.
Prior to that, teachers negotiated with individual school districts. From 1987 to 1994 there were 50 strikes, one of them provincewide, and three lockouts. Since 1990, 13 pieces of legislation have been introduced to end labour disputes, about half of them involving public education.
Among the people brought in to recommend fixes was Don Wright. Now the president of the B.C. Institute of Technology, he was a former deputy minister asked to report on the situation in 2004. He suggested a new approach that could have led to a “mature bargaining relationship.”
He laid out a five-step process with fixed deadlines, public reporting of positions and the possibility of a finaloffer system where an arbitrator would pick the proposal of one side or the other.
It was a well thought-out process that couldn’t possibly have been any worse than what people now endure. But nothing was done. The BCTF vehemently opposed the ideas. The government was leery of anything to do with binding arbitration, since it had just gotten scorched by the province’s doctors in an arbitration award. And then-premier Gordon Campbell was confident he could beat the teachers in the political arena, if need be.
By the time the report was digested, an election was looming and the government lost interest in pursuing a different approach.
So B.C. is stuck in the same boring, unproductive charade that’s played out before.
Just So You Know: There’s one new wrinkle this time. The Liberals want to show they’re still committed to education, if not to giving teachers raises. So Premier Christy Clark went on a school-building spree to make the point, announcing assorted new school plans, including new secondary schools in Oak Bay, Langford and Colwood. Now watch for the legislative hammer to come down, once again.