Almost six years ago, Vince Ready, in an interim report to the BC Liberal government about relations with teachers, commented:
…the parties have not concluded meaningful negotiations in the decade since the Public Education Labour Relations Act established the present bargaining structure. It is clear that, unless both sides are committed to collective bargaining, the process will be fruitless no matter what system is adopted or legislated.
…It is trite to say that free collective bargaining carries with it the responsibility to make it work. That responsibility lies mainly with the parties.”
In 1998, BC’s NDP government imposed a labour contract after recalcitrant school trustees rejected a negotiated agreement approved by teachers. In 2002, Campbell Liberals legislated the next contract, which removed non-monetary gains achieved by teachers four years before. Liberals subsequently passed legislation further reducing the bargaining rights of teachers. In 2005, after negotiations for a new agreement failed, legislation arbitrarily extended the previous contract. A province wide walk-out of teachers resulted but was ended with a mediated settlement.
In February 2007, in his Final Report for Collective Bargaining Option, Ready reminded the parties that,
At the very heart of the labour relations system which governs participants in collective bargaining is the need to compromise, to seek new and creative solutions and to take a pragmatic and disciplined approach to differences which develop in the relationship.
Ready’s continuing efforts followed recommendations made by the Wright Commission in 2004 aimed at establishing “mature collective bargaining.” According to the Commission, success required “an attitudinal and behavioral change on both sides.” The five year contract negotiated in 2006 gave some hope that had been achieved.
However, negotiations in 2011 indicate that 2006 was an aberration. The parties again are apart and it has been clear for months that a voluntary agreement can only be achieved through the surrender on every issue by the teachers’ union.
Vince Ready’s advice of some years ago has been thrown into the waste basket by the provincial government. It is not good faith bargaining when one side refuses compromise and threatens publicly to lockout then impose an agreement by legislation if the other side fails to capitulate fully. It seems certain the BC Liberal government has no intention of negotiating an agreement of any sort with teachers. Even the reluctant promise to add partial funding needed for special needs students is a defensive ploy aimed at defusing sanctions from the Supreme Court after its ruling that teachers’ constitutional rights were violated when the province removed class size and composition from collective bargaining.
I believe the Liberal government views its disputes with teachers as politically worthwhile. Schools seem to have insatiable appetites for funding and the payback from establishing excellence in education is very long term, therefore of little interest to politicians concerned about the next election. Unfortunately, the employer’s interest in confrontation has radicalized the teachers union and helped create an atmosphere of mutual disrespect. That is unfortunate because the numerous teachers I know would happily trade higher salaries for improved teaching and learning conditions. Remuneration is only a part of job satisfaction and much could be achieved by engaging educators in solutions to non-monetary problems.
However, a Premier with ADHD is incapable of establishing the real initiatives needed to improve education in British Columbia. Hopes that an intelligent and far sighted education minister might follow Vince Ready’s clear advice of five years ago seem dashed. George Abbott so far has demonstrated that he is not up for the high road and he intends to maintain a slavish low road course of provocation, threat and insult.