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British Columbia Teachers' Federation President Susan Lambert . (Darryl Dyck For The Globe and Mail/Darryl Dyck For The Globe and Mail)
British Columbia Teachers' Federation President Susan Lambert . (Darryl Dyck For The Globe and Mail/Darryl Dyck For The Globe and Mail)

History shows collective bargaining for teachers fails Add to ...

When the NDP’s roly-poly leader Dave Barrett overthrew the 20-year reign of a Kelowna hardware merchant named W.A.C. Bennett in 1972, B.C. teachers expected great things.

And indeed, they did get some stuff from the province’s first “socialist” government. But not a lot. One thing teachers didn’t get was the right to strike, which almost all other public employees received, including police and firefighters.

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Labour minister Bill King, the robust railroader from Revelstoke, believed that teacher strikes made no sense. They didn’t hurt the government, or the general public. They only harmed students.

So, while the NDP cut class sizes and ended a previous ceiling on wage increases, teacher contracts continued to be settled by binding arbitration.

Teachers did not win the right to strike until 1987, when shouts of “Wham, Bam, Thank You, Zalm” echoed across the province. Yes, none other than good old Bill Vander Zalm finally delivered what the Barrett folks didn’t.

Twenty-five years later, we see the result: a virtually unbroken record of failure at the bargaining table, with both sides seeming to believe that compromise is for losers.

This dysfunction has persisted through administrations headed by Social Credit, the NDP and now the Liberals. It can’t always be the fault of government.

The time has come to give up. Bill King was right. In B.C. at least, free collective bargaining for teachers and trustees doesn’t work. Much as I hate to say it, some form of compulsory arbitration appears the only way to go. And the best way to do that is final offer selection. That’s where each side puts forward a final position, and an arbitrator imposes the package he or she feels is the fairer of the two. Inevitably, the process forces the parties to whittle down their demands as much as possible.

It will never happen, of course. No government in these deficit-obsessed times wants to hand over a key monetary matter like teacher salaries to a third party. The fruitless dance around the bargaining maypole is doomed to continue.

*****

Not many people have a Tom Siddon anecdote, but I do. It comes from those daze when the planets were out of whack and I was a TV reporter (“Rod Mickleburgh, CBC News … Burnaby”).

Mr. Siddon, then fisheries minister for Blarney Mulroney, was being interviewed in one of those charmless radio studios deep below sea level at the CBC. I was assigned to scrum the minister outside the studio on the halibut quota or some such half-baked issue. Or maybe it was hake …

Rather than respond, however, Mr. Siddon sped right past my probing microphone towards the elevator. The cameraman backed up with equal speed.

Seemingly blinded by the camera’s sun gun, Mr. Siddon strode straight into the wall. Crash! Oh. My. God, thought I. I’ve cost Canada its only federal fisheries minister.

But the plucky minister bounced off the wall, straightened his tie and calmly made his escape as if nothing had happened, still without saying a word.

This strange trip down memory lane was prompted by Mr. Siddon’s unexpected appearance in the news last week.

Turns out the ex-Tory minister, now the exalted director of Area D (Okanagan Falls-Kaleden) for the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen, is aghast at purported plans by the current Conservative bunch in Ottawa to water down the country’s fish habitat protection.

The captains of industry have apparently found fertile government ground with their complaint that too much attention is paid to fish, and not enough to mines and other neat projects.

In an interview with erstwhile Paris correspondent Peter O’Neil, Mr. Siddon urged the Prime Minister not to sell out the environment for the almighty dollar.

“The weight and pressure of industry convenience should [not]supersede the importance of the indelible values of our environment,” he declared.

Kudos to Tom Siddon, tough guy. Still willing to go to the wall.

****

Headlines on government news releases are rarely a barrel of laughs.

“Premier Clark creates six jobs in Hazleton” is about as droll as it gets. Lately, however, some mirth has surfaced.

We’ve had “Queen Mary gets a facelift,” followed by “First Nations welcome Abbott to Big House” and, this week, the thigh-slapper of all thigh-slappers: “Lake talks water on World Water Day.”

Can “Bell rings up lumber sale” be far behind?

Maybe the Premier’s new press secretary, Sara MacIntyre, has a sense of humour after all.

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