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UPDATE June 19, 2014:

In his article in today's Vancouver Sun, reporter Rob Shaw wrote: "The B.C. government and its bargaining agent, the B.C. Public School Employers' Association, said the true cost of the teacher class size and ratio proposal is actually $1.67 billion over five years, not the $225 million annually or $1.13 billion over five years cited by the BCTF." One of the reasons that section of Shaw's article is important is because it makes clear that the $1.67 billion figure from BCPSEA is a five year total. The document on costing released by BCPSEA adds that five year total to the annual costs of BCTF's proposed salary increases to get a figure that mixes apples and oranges. The bottom line figure in that document of $2.04 billion is being used by some as an annual cost (as I did in the article below); however, it is a nonsense number made up of adding annual compensation costs with the five year total of the cost of returning to 2002 contract language on class size and composition. A correct annual (recurring) figure is the sum of the compensation costs and the one year cost of adjusting class size and composition. The parties are still far apart in their proposals but not as far as the $2.04 billion figure suggests. Perhaps school should resume so BCPSEA can take refresher math.

June 18, 2014

A Guide to Teachers' Bargaining

It is disheartening to listen to talk shows or follow social media and see vitriol directed at teachers. Some of those screaming so loudly should spend a day trying to teach and support a class of 30 kids which can include English language learners, some with behaviour or learning issues, others waiting to be assessed so as to qualify for extra help, gifted students and students with physical disabilities. The public, especially those with children, continue to support teachers more than they do the government; however, patience will wear thin if classes don't resume by early September. As of day one of the full strike, we still don't know what will happen to summer school or to the five schools that operate on a year-round schedule. Shutting those down will not win support for the BC Teachers Federation (BCTF).

Over the past year two former Ministers of Education, Liberal George Abbott and New Democrat Paul Ramsey, appeared on Voice of BC with Vaughn Palmer and said they believe a lengthy strike may be necessary to straighten out the relationship between the BCTF and the government. It is arguable whether the government could withstand a lengthy strike without bowing to public pressure and introducing some form of legislation to end it. Unfortunately, legislative intervention only relieves the short-term pain while putting a fix to the long term bargaining structure off to a later date. Several reports on that structure have been done and are available on the Ministry of Labour website. None have produced a magic bullet; perhaps Abbott and Ramsey were correct.

The British Columbia Public School Employers' Association (BCPSEA), the bargaining agent for the employer, has a discussion paper on the history of teacher bargaining on its website. In its submission to one of the collective bargaining reviews, the BCTF provided its view of the history of teacher bargaining. Vancouver Sun columnist Vaughn Palmer added another interesting history, that of the government's documented bad faith from 2001 through 2014. A history that needs to be written is that of the internal politics in the BCTF. Going by names such as "Viewpoint", "Teachers for United Federation" (TUF) and "Coalition", over the years various activists have controlled the union executive. The "Coalition" group elected the current executive. A 2010 article by, former education reporter, Janet Steffenhagen, provides both insight into BCTF internal politics and important background to the current dispute. She wrote about Kit Krieger's one-term BCTF presidency following his 1998 negotiation of a collective agreement with the Glen Clark government that contained provisions regarding class size and composition that were "stripped" from the contract by the Liberal government in 2002. That agreement was legislatively imposed on employers after they refused to ratify it. Removal of terms from the agreement has twice been ruled unconstitutional in BC Supreme Court by Justice Griffin. The BCTF is adamant that those provisions be restored in this round of bargaining even though the government has appealed the ruling and whichever side loses in the Court of Appeal will likely attempt to take the case to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Whatever one thinks about the teachers' strike, it is useful to try to understand some of the issues and reasons for the dispute. On July 31, 2013, the government replaced BCPSEA's board of directors with trustee Michael Marchbank (who is also CEO of the Health Employers' Association of BC). In an article in The Tyee, BCTF 1st Vice-President Glen Hansman was quoted denying the BCTF had a role in the appointment of a trustee so it could bargain directly with the government. Education Minister Peter Fassbender asked BCPSEA's former board to remain on in an advisory capacity. As you can see, it gets complicated to even understand something as simple as who is bargaining on behalf of the employers. The actual employer negotiator, Peter Cameron, has been described as a former radical union negotiator; he is now playing hardball with the BCTF.

Following a weekend of negotiations June 13-15, both sides went public Monday June 16 with language so acrimonious that it is hard to believe they could resume bargaining; nevertheless, on June 17th they were back at the table. BCTF President Jim Iker's June 16th news conference is available on YouTube. Peter Cameron's news conference in response to Iker is available as unedited (raw) video on Global BC's website. It is interesting to watch both videos and note the points of disagreement, on everything from whether they really bargained all weekend to whether the government reduced its wage offer.

Following the battling news conferences, BCPSEA posted two background documents to its website. One titled "What's Really on the Table?" summarizes the proposals from each side; the other provides BCPSEA's estimate of the cost of BCTF's proposals. It claims that in year five of a six year agreement (2018), the BCTF proposals would have cost $2.04 billion (that's an annual cost, not the cumulative cost over five years). It also estimates the BCTF proposal for a $5,000 signing bonus would result in a one-time cost of $150 million. The most costly item in the BCTF proposals, according to the BCPSEA document, is $1.67 billion for the unionís class size and composition proposals. You can search the BCTF website, but unless it is in the section only open to members with passwords, there is no equivalent comparison of proposals or costing on the BCTF website. It would be helpful if the BCTF provided its version; agreement on the costs of proposals is vital in order for the parties to make progress at the table. In his 2007 report on collective bargaining options, Vince Ready recommended that the parties "develop a common understanding of the data related to all collective bargaining matters". Ready's examples include agreement on compensation and other costs. Progress was being made on the BCTF and BCPSEA joint costing until the government fired BCPSEA's board; that, and other progress being made, was subsequently lost.

To put BCPSEA's cost numbers in perspective the 2014-15 budget for public school instruction is $4.5 billion (plus $369 million for public school administration). The estimate for personal income tax revenue in 2014-15 is $7.1 billion while the sales tax is expected to bring in $6.0 billion. An increase in annual expenses of over $2 billion would require an increase in one of those taxes of about 30%. Clearly that is not going to happen, but what if the parties agree to put class size and composition to the side until the court cases conclude? If the BCTF wins all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, the government is going to have to make a substantial adjustment to its fiscal framework! It would be in everyone's interest to negotiate improvements to class size and composition provisions now so as to provide an orderly and planned escalation of costs rather than roll the dice on what costs might result following resolution of the issue in court. BCPSEA has a different alternative that wasn't mentioned on its list of what's really on the table to include contract language that allows the agreement to be cancelled by either party on 60 days-notice if it doesnít like what the court rules. It is nearly impossible to find precedents in collective agreements for termination clauses like that.


There is an alternative view on the costs of class size and composition. Justice Griffin summarized the evidence put before her by the government's 2011 negotiator Paul Straszak on the matter of costs of the "working conditions" (class size and composition) in these terms:
[148] The government's concern was that if the Working Conditions clauses were returned to the collective agreement retroactively, teachers would have the ability to make grievances where the clauses had been breached in the past. The government was concerned that this could be very costly for employers and ultimately the government. Mr. Straszak estimated for the government that these arbitrated labour claims could give rise to an estimated $500 million retroactive liability and could cost the government approximately $200 million to $275 million going forward.

There is an enormous difference between annual working condition costs of $200 million to $275 million given as evidence by the government's previous negotiator and the BCPSEA estimate of $1.67 billion for the cost of the union's proposals on class size and composition. On balance, one might put greater weight on the figure given under oath in court than on the backgrounder released by BCSPEA in the battle for public opinion. The difference hurts the government's credibility and reminds readers of the history of bad faith summarized so well by Vaughn Palmer. It is no wonder that the public doesn't know who or what to believe.