Posted on 05 July 2012 by Keith Lacey
The new deal signed by the B.C. Teachers Federation (BCTF) and the provincial government will bring labour peace and a return to normalcy for millions of school children and educators, but the odds of a long-term reconciliation appear dim, says BCTF president Susan Lambert.
“We were bullied into this process … and the government used its powers to strip us of our rights,” said Lambert last Wednesday, the day after the BCTF surprised many by announcing it has recommended approving a two-year deal that expires next June.
“After a long and difficult round of negotiations, we were compelled into this process under threat of huge fines and further punitive legislation,” said Lambert, from her Vancouver office.
“We have been able to achieve some modest improvements but, above all, we succeeded in getting the government to take its concession demands off the table,” Lambert said, adding that no other public sector union was subject to such an attack on due process and fair treatment.
“We’ve concluded this agreement in order to prevent government from imposing a contract that would further erode teachers’ hard-won rights and do more harm to students’ learning conditions,” Lambert said.
In a province-wide vote conducted June 27-29, 2012, a total of 21,044 teachers cast ballots and 75 per cent voted yes. The turnout rate was 52 per cent.
The results are a sharp contrast to those of exactly one year ago today, when teachers voted 90 per cent to launch their “teach only” campaign at the beginning of the school year.
“I doubt you could find a single teacher in B.C. who is happy with this agreement because it does absolutely nothing to improve the situation in classrooms for students or teachers,” said Lambert. “It doesn’t address class size and composition nor does it provide a fair and reasonable salary increase for our members, who have fallen far behind teachers in other parts of Canada.”
George Abbott, the Minister of Education, said the deal is fair to both sides.
“The term of the agreement runs until June 30, 2013, and sets out improved language to manage leave provisions, and is consistent with government’s net zero mandate. In addition, the parties agreed to further discuss and seek mutually agreeable improvements on key policy issues to provide students with the best education possible.”
Because the province’s 41,000 teachers had been working without a contract for a full year, the new deal expires in June of 2013 and Lambert made it very clear her union’s key demands for increased wages and control over classroom size and composition will again be on the table when negotiations resume next spring.
“We still have our wage increase demands out there,” said Lambert, in a conference call with provincial and national media. “We were forced into this agreement.”
“Going into this round of negotiations we were the lowest-paid teachers in western Canada and also lagged behind Ontario. Now we will fall even further behind, despite living in the province with the highest cost of living in the country,” Lambert said.
“We are required to open negotiations again in just eight months and we will once again be looking for fair treatment at the bargaining table and long-awaited improvements for our members and our students,” Lambert said.
The BCTF leadership only voted to recommend acceptance of the new contract when the province made it clear it was working towards starting to implement heavy fines and stepped back from its position of demanding major concessions, said Lambert.
The province had insisted for more than a year any new contract would feature a “net- zero mandate” with no increases in the Ministry of Education budget and Lambert confirmed there won’t be any wage increases and stipulations set out in the province’s controversial Bill 22 will give the ministry control of class size and composition.
“This deal certainly doesn’t address the issues that were on the top of minds of teachers,” said Lambert. “The government was demanding major concessions right up until (last) Monday afternoon.”
When the province agreed to drop those concession demands and include a $2.64 million upgrade in benefits, which will bring 75 per cent of the members of the BCTF with the same level of benefit coverage, the union leadership felt it had to recommend the province’s offer, she said.
Dr. Charles Jago, who was appointed by the province to act as a mediator over two months ago, did play a vital role in informing the government its demand for major concessions was unacceptable, said Lambert.
The Ministry of Education will cut $100 million for the next school year, which will result in the loss of 150 to 180 permanent teaching positions, which will result in teachers who are already overworked with unmanageable classroom sizes to “be stretched even further,” she said.
“Our employer is a 19th Century employer … that has a command and obey mentality,” she said.
When asked if the BCTF has been supported by senior administration and trustees across the province, Lambert said the union feels they were abandoned over the past school year.
“I think teachers are extremely disappointed about the lack of advocacy by principals, trustees and administration,” she said. “They chose to abrogate their responsibilities to support teachers.”
Lambert remains very skeptical long-term labour peace can be achieved.
“This government has caused irreparable harm,” she said.
Bo Macfarlane, the principal at Osoyoos Elementary School, said this labour dispute has been hard for everyone involved, from teachers and administration, to students and parents.
“If this deal provides some peace and a return to normal, even if it’s in the short term, it’s all the better for everyone involved,” he said.
Macfarlane admitted he, like many others, was very surprised when the BCTF announced it was recommending accepting the new deal just days before the school year wrapped up.
“It was a very pleasant surprise,” he said.
Lambert’s comments about principals and trustees not advocating strongly enough on behalf of teachers during the labour dispute was not warranted, he said.
“Like all principals, we were teachers first and I do this work because of a commitment to providing the best possible experience for kids and teachers,” he said. “My position is to serve both.”
Before school ended last week, Macfarlane said most teachers are looking forward to “having things return to normal” in September. That includes a return to extra-curricular activities, many which were halted becaue of the dispute.