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Canada

Vaughn Palmer: Legacy of failure with BCTF isn't restricted to one political party

VICTORIA — As an exercise in futility, this year’s round of bargaining in the K-12 education sector would appear to represent yet another low.

“Through the 58 days of bargaining and 16 days of mediation, only three agenda issues were resolved,” writes mediator David Schaub in a report made public late Friday afternoon. “It is evident that there is a disconnect between the parties that will not allow them to reach a collective agreement.”

Then again, as he goes on to say, it was ever thus between employer and union in the troubled sector.

“This has been a consistent theme over many rounds of negotiations. Only one collective agreement since 1987 has been reached without the assistance of a third party or government intervention.”

The legacy of failure comprises four years of Social Credit government, followed by 10 under the NDP, then 16 with the B.C. Liberals and now back to the NDP. Schaub devotes the first half dozen pages of his report to the wholly depressing saga before washing his hands of it and those collectively responsible.

“It would not be particularly beneficial to determine who is to blame,” he wrote in an effort to move on. “Rather than look backwards to determine what and why it didn’t work the parties should be looking forward to see if there is a pathway forward where a negotiated settlement is the norm.”

His point being that given the history of failure, “as important as it is to conclude a collective agreement, it is equally important to create an environment where an agreement can be reached.”

Schaub is not the first to say such things about labour relations in the K-12 sector. Almost every outsider who’s ever been called on to comment — and even some insiders — have remarked on the dysfunctional relationship, the legacy of failure, the two sides that appear to inhabit parallel universes.

But it needed to be said again with the New Democrats now in power. To hear the NDP tell it during their days in Opposition, all problems in the K-12 sector were a result of underfunding, contract stripping and teacher-union-baiting by the B.C. Liberals.

The Schaub report serves to remind New Democrats why they, too, had trouble with K-12 sector bargaining during their previous term of office. The B.C. Teachers’ Federation was a handful, even before the Liberals began blundering their way through the sector.

But useful as it is for the mediator to put all this into perspective, his well-intentioned effort to move beyond the legacy of failure only serves as a reminder of the sheer intractability of the current situation.

Schaub recommended a settlement based on the provincial government mandate for all public sector negotiations of two per cent a year for each of three years, plus some tweaking and trade-offs on key issues pursued by the union.

He pointed to there being further room for movement by making use of an offer of a further increase of a quarter of a percentage point a year (0.25 per cent) through service improvements.

He argued that failure to settle on this basis would represent a “missed opportunity to address class size, class composition, teacher salary grids, and attraction and retention of teachers from inside and outside the province to meet the needs of students, parents and communities.”

But his recommendations were declared dead on arrival by the BCTF within a day of them being received at the outset of the month. Not enough on the compensation side, no relief on class sizes and composition, and so on. The union did not even send it to a membership vote.

In releasing the Schaub report Friday, the B.C. Public School Employers’ Association, which asked for the mediator, expressed disappointment that the BCTF rejected it out of hand. But the association passed on sending it to a vote of its own members, saying it would be “moot.”

None of this is surprising.

The union has been pressing for a settlement that, by government reckonings, would greatly exceed the cabinet-imposed bargaining mandate and probably trigger “me too” clauses in the contracts of other public sector unions.

Schaub took note of the union view that the New Democrats should simply meet expectations by putting more money into the sector. He then politely put the union in its place with a reminder of the role of government in such matters.

“The focus of the provincial government is to balance the consideration of the K-12 parties against its other considerations such as adequate funding for health care, highways and transportation, income support for those unable to support themselves, putting in place a competitive tax and business climate that will allow British Columbians to sustain a high standard of living, ensuring that the level of taxes paid by the residents of the province is consistent with their preferences as to the distribution of tax dollars and how much is left for them to spend on themselves.”

Finance Minister Carole James, a former school trustee who faced off against the BCTF, could not have put it better herself.

So the dispute stumbles onward, like the relationship itself. With the union showing no inclination for job action, any cause for government intervention is still a long way off.

But in the event that day were to come, the New Democrats could readily use the recommendations in the mediator’s report as a basis for an imposed settlement.

Vpalmer@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/VaughnPalmer

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