I don’t go looking for trouble in my personal conversations at social gatherings. I really don’t, but trouble follows me. You see, I’m a teacher, and as soon as that little fact enters the conversation, people start asking me questions about the current teacher job action. I try to appear balanced, and non-confrontational, but inevitably it takes less than a minute for the conversationalist to weigh in with his or her opinion on what should be done to solve the current labour impasse.
And almost always I’m confronted with opinions (I can usually cite the articles that gave rise to these opinions) that are formulated out of untruths and half truths told by government officials, and repeated by editorial writers in the main stream press. Most of the people I talk to are intelligent, news-literate people. They read the mainstream papers and they have life experience and education that allow them to be important contributors to our economy and our democracy. So it is no fault of theirs that they are so very much in the dark as to what is going on in BC’s education system. For this I blame the corporate-owned press itself.
However, I do suspect that many of them prefer to believe that the teachers are at fault in this dispute. Most of the people I know in my personal life work in a business world –a world that has been told repeatedly that socially funded programs are a net burden to society. So they may be loathe to hear the truth and quick to jump on mischaracterizations of the truth. But truth is truth, and an ethical person, once confronted with the truth, has to finally accept it.
The situation is like the one in Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes. The villagers in the tale believe that their emperor is the best dressed man in the world. When a deceitful tailor tricks the emperor into going naked by convincing him that his cloths are so fine as to be invisible, no one says anything, preferring to live under the delusion that the emperor is well-dressed. The spell is broken when an innocent boy who is too young to be swayed by the popular delusion of a well-dressed emperor, points out the ugly truth that the emperor is naked.
What follows is a list of deluded suggestions about the teacher labour dispute – in which the emperor is most definitely naked.
Misconception #1. The BCTF and government are far apart on wages and benefits.
Actually, this is not true. The government has come off its 10 year contract idea. The BCTF has come down from its 14.5% wage demand, and now the parties are within a year an a percentage point of each other.
Misconception #2. The teachers and government need to put aside class size and composition language until the appeal court decision, and complete negotiations on wages and benefits.
Not a bad idea, but this has been tried. The BCTF proposed a “placeholder” for class size and composition. The government responded with a clause that allows either party to cancel the whole contract if they don’t like the court result. The union can not benefit from this arrangement. It has no means to keep negotiating ad infinitum. If it loses the support of the court, no new negotiation will help the union. On the other hand, if the government can just cancel out a court ruling, it can sustain its illegal action forever against the union.
Misconception #3. The parties are too far apart for mediation to occur.
Not really. Theoretically, a mediator can look at two parties’ positions no matter how far apart they are and come up with a suggestion. The problem here is that the government has set as a precondition that some of its terms are just not open to mediation. In effect, without saying so directly, the government is refusing accept mediation, no matter how much it protests to the contrary. On the other hand, the teachers, who have asked for mediation, are willing to compromise their demands according to the recommendations of a mediator.
Misconception #4. The teachers’ demands are unrealistic.
This is, of course, a matter of opinion, but many people who hold this opinion are unaware of some facts:
Fact 1: According to Stats Canada data from 2011 (funding has gotten worse since then) BC has the second lowest-funded education system in Canada. At that time, it’s average funding was $1000 per student per year below the national average.
Fact 2: BC’s teacher to student ratio is lower than any other province in Canada.
Fact 3: BC teachers’ wages and benefits are the lowest in Canada and if all of their demands were met, they’d still be far below the national average.
Fact 4: The government has been caught trying to incite public disdain for teachers and then using this disdain as political capital to help them win an election. This has been deemed “bad faith”in the provincial Supreme Court, and it is completely unethical as well as illegal. This fact has been confirmed by the very board chair of the employers’ association who was involved in those bad faith negotiations.
And this fact is what baffles me most. This calumny is met by the press and the public with a sort of yawn. Gone are the days when the public howled its outrage at politicians who stepped afoul of ethics. And this is but one in many ethical breaches, including sweetheart deals, golden handshakes, and failed conflict-of-interest disclosures.
Meanwhile, it is simply a cold numerical fact that BC’s education system is the worst maintained in Canada. So far the teachers have done a good job subsidizing the system with more and more hours of work and their own money, but cracks are starting to appear in student learning results.
Misconception #5. The government is negotiating within its rights just like any business.
The government is not at all negotiating in good faith. As if the opt-out clause isn’t enough, it tried to bully the union into an agreement by threatening to make the union pay teacher health benefits (which is unquestionably illegal). In another instance, when the union came way down in its salary demands, it held off responding for 48 hours, then came back with a lowered salary offer. As a friend of mine from the business world said, “That’s not cricket.”
I don’t know what more can be done to convince anyone of what is really happening in teacher negotiations. Districts all over the province are complaining of budget shortfalls, and still there seems to be a reluctance from the press to investigate. They seem content to offer soap boxes to politicians from which they distort the facts. Editorial writers in mainstream papers don’t seem to care (or know?) that the government misrepresents and mischaracterizes negotiations. The best they can seem to come up with is that both parties need to sit down and negotiate.