As British Columbia's teachers' union urged its members to wear black to mark a “dark day in education,” some parents wondered when they might see daylight in the teachers' long-running labour dispute.
“We’re hearing a great deal of frustration and we’re hearing it pop up under different categories,” B.C. Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils president Ann Whiteaker said on Friday, the day of protest, adding that parents have voiced concerns related to report cards, parent-teacher interviews and other activities affected by teachers’ job action.
As of Friday, it wasn't clear how many teachers heeded the call to wear black. Under an arbitration ruling issued last year, teachers are not to wear union buttons or T-shirts with political messages in the classroom. In a bulletin, the employer said it would not view the wearing of black by a teacher as something that warrants employer action. Parents were divided, with some supporting teachers and others criticizing the tactic.
“I as a parent would rather know, with my elementary student, that my teacher today was focused on teaching my daughter,” Ms. Whiteaker said. “Not about the politics that are going on outside the classroom.
“That’s where you’ll see disappointment from parents, and they will say, ‘one way or another – just end [the dispute]’”
Education Minister George Abbott has said that he does not want the school year to conclude without students getting a full report card, but has shied away from setting a deadline after which he would consider legislating teachers back to work.
Teachers have been engaged in limited job action since September. As part of that action, they are not filling out report cards, attending staff meetings, helping with fundraising or performing other administrative duties. The B.C. Public School Employers’ Association and the BCTF continue to negotiate but the sides are far apart, with BCPSEA sticking to the provincial government’s net zero mandate and the BCTF saying net-zero amounts to a pay cut for its members.
This month, the BCTF unveiled a wage proposal that featured a 15-per-cent increase over three years, characterizing it as an effort to kick-start negotiations and pricing it at about $300-million a year.
Mr. Abbott shot down the proposal and BCPSEA has subsequently said it would cost closer to $2-billion over three years.
Teachers and the province are also at loggerheads over 10-year-old legislation that was the subject of Friday’s symbolic gesture.
On Friday, the BCTF said teachers across the province would wear black to mark the 10th anniversary of Bills 27 and 28. That legislation, part of a sweeping labour overhaul by the Liberal government, stripped teachers’ contract provisions relating to class size and composition and was challenged by the BCTF in court. Last year, a B.C. Supreme Court judge found parts of the legislation to be unconstitutional and gave the province a year, until April 13, 2012, to fix it.
To date, however, the province and the BCTF have failed to strike a deal. The BCTF says the court ruling means the province has to reinstate the money – $336-million a year, by the BCTF’s reckoning – that the province saved by getting rid of contract provisions.
The province, however, wants to negotiate a settlement as it did with health-care workers, whose contracts were also overhauled in 2002 and who took their battle for redress all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. In a landmark 2007 decision, that court found the legislation unconstitutional, setting the stage for an $85-million settlement a year later.
As the clock ticks on the Supreme Court timeline relating to Bills 27 and 28, the province is also facing a school calendar – and some frustrated parents – about contract negotiations.
“I still think it’s going to end up in the legislature,” Mark Thompson, a labour professor at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business, said Friday.
Teachers negotiated a contract in 2006, but that deal came with a raise and a signing bonus. The BCTF says its members have lost ground compared to teachers in other provinces and that working conditions have deteriorated as a result of funding shortfalls in the classroom.
As the dispute continues, some school districts are shifting recess as stop-gap measures wear thin.
The Saanich School District last week voted to move recess for elementary school students to the end of the day from earlier in the afternoon.
The change, planned to take effect in April, would mean children would be released from class 15 minutes earlier instead of getting an afternoon recess and is designed to lessen the load on management staff who have been doing recess supervision.
Other districts, including Nanaimo and Prince George, have taken similar measures.