Context for Understanding the Current Bargaining Stalemate with BCTF

On Tuesday, March 4, 2014 an Op Ed was posted in the Creston Valley Advance newspaper. It was written by Melanie Joy, past Chair of BC Public School Employers Association (BCPSEA), the negotiating body for the government in teacher talks.

The editorial refutes Education Minister Fassbender’s claim that during contract negotiations in 2012, the government had been trying in good faith to achieve a contract settlement with the BC Teachers Federation (BCTF).

The sequence of events at that time was as follows:

Talks had not gone well in 2011-12. The government had come to the table proposing egregious cuts without a single improvement of any kind for teachers. After an escalating work-to-rule campaign by the teachers, culminating in a three day walkout, the government created back-to-work legislation (Bill 22), forcing teachers to end their job action and to accept the government’s own chosen mediator to hash out a contract. The teachers claimed that Bill 22 violated their constitutional right to bargain for a contract. Eventually a one year truce was signed, in which the teachers got no pay increase or help with class sizes.

After the one-year contract was concluded, BCPSEA and the BCTF began bargaining for the next contract. In January of 2013, the two parties agreed to a groundbreaking bargaining framework that included a provision for a facilitator – an unheard-of concession for a union to agree to.

By all reports, bargaining was going well – much better than it had before Bill 22. The talks at the table were far more conciliatory, and both the government and the teachers had hopes for labour peace. This may have been due to the fact that the government was currently in an election campaign, and was staying at arm’s length from the process in order to avoid negative attention.

Then in June of 2013, after the incumbent Liberals won the election, Education Minister Fassbender quite suddenly fired BCPSEA’s board and hired its own chosen bargaining representatives. All of the work that the parties had done was for naught. And as far as the government was concerned, the parties were back to square one.

Now, a year later, the BC Supreme Court has finally ruled on the teacher’s case against Bill 22. The Court found that it was illegal, much of it being a rehashing of a previous illegal legislation from ten years prior. Although it had been publicized as a cooling off legislation, it was far more. Embedded in the Bill were all kinds of new education policy that went far beyond the “business-as-usual” ethic of a cooling-off bill.

By introducing the legislation, the government had avoided having to negotiate with the BCTF. The Court decreed that as the Government had made no attempt to address the repercussions of the a ten year-old legislation that the Court struck down in 2011, or to bargain in good faith with teachers in 2011-12, working conditions were to be restored to the same levels as they were in 2002. The matter is now under appeal.

In her editorial, Joy refers to the Court’s judgment, and confirms the Court finding that the government had not wanted a negotiated settlement; moreover government had resented the one year agreement that the BCTF eventually signed on to. She writes:

     “Although the negotiated agreement met the (government’s) monetary mandate, government representatives informed us of their dissatisfaction with the agreement, including the lost opportunity*, now identified in the recent judgment, to “impose concessions which advance education initiatives” through legislation triggered by the failure of collective bargaining.”

     On March 6, 2014, in the midst of continued contract talks, the BCTF  announced that its members are heavily in favour (89%) of job action if advances can’t be made in bargaining. Minister Fassbender went on the radio discussing the results of the BCTF strike vote with Radio host, Shane Woodford. When Woodford asked the Minister about the letter from Melanie Joy, the Minister denied her claim.

It is fascinating that even though what Joy writes is confirmed by the Supreme Court ruling, Minister Fassbender continues to deny that the government bargained in bad faith. He still avers that the government has always sought, and still seeks, a negotiated settlement with the BCTF – an assertion that the courts, and his own bargainers have roundly refuted.

The truth is that the government, having won a new majority in the last election, has forced the bargaining process to regress, firing its arms-length bargaining body, and putting in its own people, stripping previous concessions off the bargaining table, and citing inaccurate talking points in the media, the latest being that the teachers have not made a proposal. This is simply not true. The teachers made comprehensive bargaining demands, including compensation demands, in March 2013.

As I write this, Minister Fassbender is on CBC radio denying that the BCTF has introduced a comprehensive bargaining package. He has lost all credibility.

*The “lost opportunity” recognized in the court judgment, refers to the government’s initial failure in its attempt to provoke a full scale walkout by teachers. Court testimony revealed that the government had hoped that goading teachers into a strike would allow it to vilify teachers, and to improve its own PR by ordering an end to the strike. This can be read in the Court document. It was ruled by the Court to be bad faith bargaining.

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