Column: Five years to repair government-teacher relations

The newly crafted labour peace may, though, only be a labour truce for now.

Mediator Vince Ready pulled off another of his magic touches as he navigated the government and the BCTF to a tentative settlement after marathon talks last weekend. The province’s 41,000 teachers, who have been without a contract since June 2013, voted on the deal yesterday and all eyes are on school opening next week.

There are no winners here, except maybe Ready himself for getting the two sides to quit their squabbling and mudslinging and get bargaining. Not everyone is going to be happy with the deal but negotiations means trade-offs.  This of course could have been done in the summer instead of the theatrics of avoiding talks until the new school year start-up. No doubt most teachers are more than eager to get back in class, start earning again and resume what they love and do best.

It’s been a long, hard, bitter fight and students have lost five weeks of instruction between the end of the last school year and the beginning of this one. Plus there has been the complete loss of summer school. Catch-up will be essential, but do-able.

This mess divided parents, too. An Angus Reid poll at the end of August showed an almost even split between support for teachers (36 per cent) and support for the government (35 per cent) with 23 per cent saying they supported neither side. In June, support for teachers was pretty strong (46 per cent) compared to government support at 29 per cent.

Opinion shifted a lot over the summer on the contentious issue of class size and composition, the ratio of students to teachers and the student make-up in each class. This has been inflammatory ever since Gordon Campbell’s government ripped up the teacher’s collective agreements in 2002 and, with Bills 27 and 28, eliminated protection on class size and composition, cut support for special needs kids, and stripped teachers of bargaining rights. That move was hiked into court by the BCTF. In June 2007 the Supreme Court of Canada declared the legislation unconstitutional since workers’ rights to collectively bargain working conditions are protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Then in April 2011 the BC Supreme Court ruled both Bills 27 and 28 unconstitutional and gave the government one year to remedy things and reinstate bargaining rights. So the government floated Bill 22 suspending teachers’ strike action. It was also found to be unconstitutional by the BC Supreme Court. The province is appealing that decision.

According to the Angus Reid poll in June, 62 per cent of respondents said the B.C. government should fund the education system the way the court had ruled while 38 per cent supported the government’s right to appeal. In August, opinions were more evenly split with 55 per cent saying the government should do what the court says while 45 per cent still back the appeal process.

The new contract is for six years with a 7.25 per cent wage increase over that time, a $105 million payment to the union to address grievances, and $400 million to hire new teachers.

This is the longest contract ever between the teachers and the government and it has the potential to offer some stability for everyone. Maybe both sides will invest in some trust-building. OK, so that sounds laughable right now especially as the court case is still lingering. But this relationship must have a chance to find a way to repair itself.

The newly crafted labour peace may, though, only be a labour truce for now. When contracts expire, these two have a habit of picking up the squabble where they left off.

Just wait five years. Maybe the Ready-touch will be on speed dial.

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