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March 2, 2012

BCTF Politics - Bill 22

Teachers would be better served by a union that is as successful as CUPE, HEU or BCGEU, but teachers get the union they create. The BC Teachersí Federation (BCTF), like all unions, is democratic. If teachers don't like how it serves them, only teachers can change it. In the meantime, it must be presumed that the BCTF has the support of its members and their president is the legitimate spokesperson, just as it must be presumed Premier Christy Clark speaks for the government.

Governments of all political stripes have legislated an end to strikes, but the particulars of legislation that impose contracts vary. Sometimes past agreements are continued, sometimes arbitrators are appointed and sometimes mediators are appointed. Bill 22 is odious because it restricts the scope of the mediator. It is also odious because it takes minimal steps to reverse the government's illegal removal of class size and composition provisions, leaving the teachers worse off than they were in the contract that former Minister of Education Christy Clark broke in 2002. It is understandable that teachers are angry about Bill 22.

Callers to talk shows self-select; their opinions should not be taken as representing the general population. Nevertheless it is aggravating to hear the teacher bashing that is going on in reaction to the BCTF's decision to engage in strike action as approved by the Labour Relations Board.

Contrary to the belief of some, just because most teachers have July and August, Christmas and spring breaks off, doesn't mean they work fewer hours than other workers. A 40 hour a week job, means 2,000 hours a year; count hours spent by teachers doing evening and weekend marking and class preparation as well as after-hours club and sports sponsorships, and you'll find most work at least 2,000 hours a year.

Some people have horror stories about bad teachers. In a profession with over 40,000 members there probably are some rotten apples, just as there are bad priests, police officers, doctors and other professionals. It is wrong to say the system can't do anything about bad performance. Collective agreements spell out the steps to be taken when there are complaints about allegedly incompetent teachers. Effective principals follow those steps and get results, changes that are often not visible outside the system.

A myth circulating on the talk shows, reinforced by Minister of Education George Abbott in his Bill 22 second reading speech, is that seniority gets in the way of hiring qualified teachers. One false example is that someone with no math background could teach math. That is nonsense, contrary to both practice and the collective agreement which clearly states vacancies will be filled in seniority order, to continuing teachers who possess the necessary qualifications. The definition of qualifications includes a reasonable expectation by the Superintendent that the teacher will be able to perform the duties of the position.

It is disappointing that more isn't done to counter teacher bashing. The BCTF would be well advised to have representatives respond quickly to allegations about teachers so frequent repetition isn't mistaken for fact. That is but one of the public relations weaknesses of the BCTF. In this round of bargaining, leading to Bill 22 which will impose a "cooling-off period", the BCTF has come across as money grubbers who put their pay and benefits ahead of their students. Teachers are poorly served when their union creates that impression, as they are when it repeatedly fails to negotiate agreements while other public sector unions succeed.

Like other unions, the BCTF is democratic; governed by its members. The job action slated for March 5-7 was approved by a vote of 86% of its members who voted. It is hard to understand why 25% did not vote, but it is also hard to understand why almost 50% of eligible voters donít vote in general elections. Despite having Bill 22 in front of them and knowing that strike action would not put pressure on the employer, 27,946 teachers voted to strike. They must be doing that out of frustration and a need to send a message to the government. It is hard to say what kind of message the government will receive when it potentially saves $11 million for every day the teachers are out.

The BCTF will hold its Annual General Meeting in Vancouver, March 17-20, where its president Susan Lambert and several executive members will be challenged for re-election. The last time the BCTF defeated an incumbent president was in 1999 when Kit Krieger lost to challenger David Chudnovsky. Krieger lost after a 0-0-2% agreement was negotiated under his leadership but, failing ratification, had to be imposed by Bill 39 (1998). In her March 10, 2010, blog Vancouver Sun education reporter Janet Steffenhagen elaborated on internal BCTF politics and whether Krieger's acceptance of that wage settlement contributed to his defeat.

Steffenhagen's February 1, 2012 blog examines the complexities of the BCTF's upcoming election. Unlike 1999 when the incumbent president was under attack for the deal he supported, Lambert faces criticism for "the reputation of the BCTF in the public's eye." Challenger Rick Guenther didn't file his nomination papers until late January. Delegates to the AGM are chosen at meetings which frequently have to be rescheduled after first failing a quorum (there are no quorum requirements on the rescheduled meeting). That means an activist minority can strongly influence delegate strength at the AGM, held during spring break when many have things other than union politics on their minds. Winning a contested election at the AGM would be easier if candidates had supporters active many weeks in advance of the delegate selection meetings. Failing that, and failing widespread discontent with the incumbent, a successful challenge to Lambert appears to be a long shot.

Few things can stop a majority government. After the opposition has had it say, Premier Christy Clark's majority will pass Bill 22. It is unlikely the mediator will be able to help the parties find a settlement, so a mediation report will be produced in accordance with the Bill by June 30. Sometime before August 31, the government will likely recall the legislature and impose a settlement based on the mediation report. It is arguable that however unfair Bill 22 may be, teachers could do better by behaving like other unions and trying to find a settlement. That is not to be, and it likely never will be unless internal politics and member participation significantly changes the BCTF.