Patti Bacchus

Patti Bacchus is an education columnist with the Georgia Straight. She was chair of the Vancouver school board from 2008 to 2014. This column first appeared in The Straight.

About 300 teachers from across B.C. will be meeting in Richmond this weekend at the B.C. Teachers’ Federation’s (BCTF) winter representative assembly, with their collective hopes high that a new contract can be hammered out through mediated bargaining.

They’ll also be considering a plan for what to do if bargaining fails.

The BCTF’s contract expired last June. After a year of contract talks with the B.C. Public School Employers’ Association (BCPSEA, which represents government and school boards), with little apparent progress, news of a ‘leaked’ memo outlining BCTF president Teri Mooring’s proposal for a ‘bargaining action plan’ – which includes steps that could lead to a full-scale strike – caused a minor social media ruckus last week.

Global B.C.’s legislative bureau chief, Keith Baldrey, broke the story after he obtained a copy of Mooring’s confidential memo to BCTF local presidents and executive committee members.

The memo proposes a four-stage plan; stage one, which is where teachers are now, consists primarily of various communications tactics.

Stage two would start with a strike vote and proceed to job action. In that stage, teachers would continue to sponsor or lead voluntary extracurricular activities but would not participate in parent-teacher conferences (but would continue to communicate informally with parents). They would not attend staff meetings with administrators nor provide coverage for absent teachers unless they are hired as on-call teachers for that purpose, along with several other tactics designed to inconvenience management without affecting students or parents.

Stage three would move to rotating strikes, while the final stage would be a full-scale strike.

I’ve been around this block a few times, so it’s no surprise to me that the BCTF’s leadership would make contingency plans to take to its locals for consideration in case mediated bargaining fails. It’s a routine move they’d be remiss not to make after so long at the table.

Mooring confirmed that to me earlier this week in a telephone call, emphasizing that the BCTF is fully committed to the mediated bargaining process and hopes to set bargaining dates for February.

The parties – the BCTF, BCPSEA, and mediator David Schaub –have been on a break from the bargaining process since mid-December due to Schaub’s limited availability in January, Mooring told me.

No strike vote will occur while the mediation process continues.

According to Mooring, the BCTF has “modified” its bargaining position several times over the past year, while BCPSEA put what the BCTF says are concessions on the table last April and hasn’t budged on them since.

That’s a major sticking point in the process. Mooring says BCPSEA’s proposals would essentially nullify the BCTF’s 2016 win at the Supreme Court of Canada, as agreeing to them would mean giving up previously negotiated contract provisions regarding class size and composition in many school districts.

The BCTF appears to be ready to accept government’s bargaining mandate of a two percent per year wage increase over three years, which the majority of other public-sector unions have signed on to already. That would still leave B.C. teachers’ salaries behind their counterparts in most of the country, and it may not even keep pace with inflation.

Mooring says her union is “working within the mandate” but is asking for salary restructuring (for example, shortening the number of steps on the salary grid required to reach the highest level, and eliminating the lowest step), along with “equity of learning conditions” across the province, through more consistent class size and composition limits.

She claims BCPSEA is proposing a complete elimination of class composition language.

Government’s education-funding changes are complicating bargaining.

Government’s opaque education-funding model changes are making the complicated bargaining process even more difficult. The proposed new model, or as much as has been made public at this point, includes changes to how special-education funding is calculated. Funding would no longer be allocated based on actual enrollment of students with special-needs designations and instead would be based on the general “prevalence” of various categories of special needs.

So far government has refused to release specifics so districts can get a clearer idea of how their budgets would be affected by the funding changes. That’s a worry for many, including the BCTF. If individual students are no longer designated and/or designations aren’t reported, that may affect contract language regarding class composition, which in many cases is based on the numbers of students with various special-needs designations.

The elephant in the room is that B.C. still funds its public schools well below the national average. In my early days as a school trustee, a decade or so ago, we cited Statistics Canada figures showing B.C.’s per-student funding was about $1,000 less than other provinces, putting B.C. near the bottom in terms of education funding. According to the BCTF, that gap has now grown to $1,800. That’s a problem.

If the pie is too small, you can slice it however you want and there still won’t be enough to go around.

It’s ironic and disappointing that the only province in Canada with an NDP government that is generally considered to be public-education friendly does so poorly when it comes to funding its public schools, relative to other provinces.

Despite the flurry of excited tweets about the potential for chaotic rotating strikes, it appears nothing of the sort is imminent.

Mooring says the BCTF’s leadership will continue to do preplanning to be prepared for next steps if they can’t get a deal, but the focus for now continues to be on getting a deal through mediated bargaining.

No one wants a strike, least of all teachers. Walking a picket line indefinitely and missing pay cheques is a bleak proposition for those who just want a fair deal.

Government could do its part to prevent increased job action, or an eventual full-scale strike, by directing BCPSEA to take its class-composition concessions off the bargaining table, given the BCTF is willing to work within government’s miserly mandate, despite the province’s teacher shortage.

Government would be wise to get involved and get this dispute resolved in a manner that helps address the teacher shortage by making B.C. a more attractive place for teachers to work.

It’s alarming that northern school districts continue to hire uncertified teachers to fill vacancies, due to the peristent teacher shortage. More urban districts are also struggling to fill teaching positions and often can’t find substitutes to cover absences.

B.C. has a well-earned international reputation for high-quality teaching, due to its professional standards. That reputation is at risk if people who lack full teaching qualifications are this government’s answer to the teacher shortage instead of providing competitive wages and working conditions.

Productive bargaining usually requires movement on both sides. The BCTF has made several moves. It’s time for the employer and government side to reciprocate and prevent a strike that no one wants.