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September 19, 2014

Strike Post-Mortem

Now that an agreement has been ratified by 86% of teachers, it might be instructive to compare the deal with positions taken by the BC Public School Employers' Association (BCPSEA) and the BCTF before the full strike began in June. Some wonder why a compromise couldn't have been reached in June, so students wouldn't have missed classes, parents wouldn't have struggled to find childcare and teachers wouldn't have lost more than a month's pay. Was that possible?

There are teachers who say no deal was possible without the strike because the government wanted to show teachers there is a cost taking strike action. Some say the government was seeking to undo what the union won in court and the government had other "concessions" on the table. Those accusations might be true but could the BCTF have found an agreement in June notwithstanding those matters?

It is not unusual for unions to ask their members for a strike vote in order to increase pressure at the bargaining table, but in recent years, it is unusual for any union to strike for over a month. The pay that teachers lost was as much a result of the BCTF’s decision to strike as it was of government not accepting the BCTF’s early demands. In June the BCTF was asking for a $5,000 signing bonus and 8% in pay increases over 5 years (expiration June 30, 2018). The final settlement gave teachers no signing bonus and 7.25% in pay increases over 6 years (expiration June 30, 2019). In July the BCPSEA said the cost of dental and extended health proposals from the BCTF were $11 million per year; the settlement provided $3.8 million in the second year of the agreement, increasing to $11.85 million in its final year.

Like other recent public sector settlements, teachers might benefit from "Economic Stability Dividends" if the economy out performs forecasts. In an unusual twist, the union agreed to drop all grievances arising from Justice Griffin's rulings and it is to receive a one-time payment of $105 million to direct to members as it chooses. It could use that for "bonuses" of as much as $3,600 per teacher. If the BCTF wins in Appeal Court and then in the Supreme Court of Canada, the government's liability on the grievances could have been in excess of $500 million. Opinions differ on which side benefited the most from the grievance resolution, but after the Hospital Employees’ Union won in the Supreme Court of Canada with respect to Bill 29, the subsequent resolution of damages was for roughly 15% of what the government was estimated to have saved. The resolution of BCTF grievances is approximately equivalent to that.

In June BCPSEA offered 7% in pay increases over 6 years and a $1,200 settlement bonus if a deal were reached before June 30. It appears the settlement for pay in September was no better, possibly worse, than what was available in June.

In a document titled "Ten Reasons to Vote Yes", the BCTF said "Knocking E80 off the table is a significant victory, one only possible because we educated British Columbians about this unjust demand." E80 was the BCPSEA’s proposal to deal with class size and composition while superseding and replacing all previous Articles in the collective agreement that addressed class size, composition and staffing levels. The BCTF argued that E80 was an attempt to negotiate away everything it won in the two rulings made by Justice Griffin. On September 11th on CBC radio, Education Minister Peter Fassbender said E80 was open to negotiation. Later that day the BCPSEA issued a backgrounder on E80 in which it said it was its proposal on class size and composition which it was prepared to negotiate. Within hours of the signal on E80, the negotiators from both sides were talking with Vince Ready leading to three days of mediation that produced the agreement early on September 15. Some teachers contend that the strike was to get that movement on E80; if they are right, it means the government is responsible for the lost schools days by attempting to gain at the bargaining table what it had twice lost in court rather than waiting for its appeal to be heard. There are alternative views which are impossible to test in retrospect.

What would have happened if in June the BCTF had moved close to language on class size and composition that is in the September settlement? Perhaps the government would have still refused to budge, or perhaps if all other matters were resolved, the BCTF could have applied enough public pressure to force movement and avoid the strike. We'll never know and some teachers will never believe that was a possibility. The best we can do is compare the positions of the parties leading up to the settlement with the terms found in the deal.

The BCPSEA backgrounder on E80 published September 11th provided a link to what it said was the BCTF proposal on class size and composition, U62. The problem is the BCTF position it referred to was from June 8 and it had changed by then. On June 19 the BCTF issued a release that referred to its proposal for a $225 million per year fund to deal with class size, composition and staffing ratios until the next court ruling. A June 25 BCPSEA bulletin elaborated on the revised BCTF position, claiming that the union had two positions, U62 and its $225 million per year proposal for class size, composition and staffing issues. While some materials from the BCPSEA might be biased, the BCTF chose not to provide public access to its version of costs and detailed proposals. What is clear are the details in the settlement and how far they differ from either of the BCTF positions.

The settlement establishes an Education Fund in the amount of $75 million for the 2014-15 school year, $80 million for each of the next three school years and $85 million for the 2018-19 school year, for a total of $400 million over five years. The principal or vice-principal in each school will meet with local union representatives to discuss how to distribute the funds to address "working and learning needs" by hiring bargaining unit employees (teachers not educational assistants (EAs), who are members of CUPE).

The $400 million in the Education Funds is not all "new money". In 2012 the infamous Bill 22, which Justice Griffin ruled unconstitutional, established the learning improvement fund (LIF). The 2014-15 provincial budget said LIF increased from $60 million in 2013-14 to $75 million in 2014-15. In 2013-14 $40 million of it was spent on teachers, $13 million on EAs and $1.4 million on teacher professional development. Most of the money in the new Education Fund is what was formerly in LIF and spent on teachers. The "new" money is approximately $20 million per year over five years. The BCTF argues that teachers now have more control over the Education Fund, but the agreement clearly says that in the event of a disagreement "the decision of the superintendent will be the final allocation".

On the big issue of class size, composition and staffing ratios, ithe BCTF settled for $20 million per year as opposed to its demand for $225 million per year. Was it necessary to strike from the middle of June until the middle of September to make that gain? Some say that without the strike E80 would have remained, but it was just a proposal and no proposal from either side takes effect unless both sides agree. Why couldn't the BCTF have reduced its demand in June to say $100 million a year, thereby encouraging the government side to bargain to the level finally agreed on in September? Some say the government wouldn't come to the table, but remember Vince Ready said it wouldn't be productive to mediate because the parties were so far apart. When looking at the positions of the BCTF and the BCPSEA relative to the settlement, it appears that it was the BCTF that had to make the biggest move in order to settle. You don't hear most unions going public to complain about proposals their employer may put on the bargaining table. They succeed in bargaining without striking by forming a realistic assessment of where a settlement can be found, lowering their demands to a position close to it and bargaining from there. Teachers and students would be better off if the BCTF followed that model of bargaining.

In its defense, the BCTF argues it is different from other unions because they don't have issues like class size, composition and staffing ratios. That is not true. In the heath sector, the Hospital Employees Union (HEU), nurses and physicians have faced similar issues. Despite winning in the Supreme Court of Canada on Bill 29, members of HEU still worry about their jobs being contracted out. Nurses complain about care aides replacing nurses and they attempt to negotiate staffing levels. Physicians have been more successful; instead of just bargaining increases to their fee schedule, Doctors of BC has essentially negotiated co-management of much of the Medical Services Plan.

The BCTF also argues that the BCPSEA had demands for concessions on the table. Its Ten Reasons for Voting Yes document said the government's school calendar proposal would have allowed school districts to change the school calendar and teachers' hours of work without any say from teachers. It doesn't say what proposals the BCTF had on the table that were also withdrawn, but neither side can claim a victory because the opposite side withdrew proposals. Until there is mutual agreement, proposals are nothing but points for discussion at the table.

The next round of bargaining for the BCTF will begin in 2018 for the agreement due to expire June 30, 2019. Hopefully by then all appeals of Justice Griffin's decision will be concluded, likely with a ruling from the Supreme Court of Canada. The agreement just concluded provides:
"The above Education Fund is subject to the final appellate judgment on the appeal of the 2014 decision of Justice Griffin. If the final judgment affects the collective agreement by fully or partially restoring the 2002 language, the parties will reopen the collective agreement on this issue and will bargain from the restored language. The Education Fund provisions will continue in effect until there is agreement regarding implementation and/or changes to the restored language.”
The Memorandum of Agreement does not refer to a dispute resolution procedure if such bargaining fails to reach agreement, although some media outlets suggest arbitration is possible. It is more like that any disagreement would carry forward into negotiations for the next collective agreement.

It is indeed historic that the parties negotiated a six year agreement and didn't have to turn to the legislature for a contract but everyone hoped that could have been done without a strike. If no lesson was learned about how to improve bargaining, 2019 could see a return to the same old style of negotiating. That is what happened following the successful negotiation of a five year agreement in 2006. Rather than continuing with the belief that it is fundamentally different from other unions, the BCTF would be wise to pay more attention to how other unions bargain. In particular it should note that those unions use experienced professional negotiators that reduce demands to a point close to what most would consider an attainable agreement. Not surprisingly, they rarely find it necessary to apply pressure with a full strike. Teachers can help their union reach that goal by becoming more active, and by attending the meetings that elect delegates to their union's annual general meeting where the president and executive of the BCTF are elected.