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(David Parkins/David Parkins for The Globe and Mail)
(David Parkins/David Parkins for The Globe and Mail)

Dispatch

It's a bad marriage and all the players are to blame Add to ...

The current round of bargaining between the BC Teachers’ Federation and the province continued this week on an entirely predictable march toward picket lines, to be quickly followed by back-to-work legislation.

“The relationship has been akin to a very long and dysfunctional marriage where the partners, when they communicate, often communicate badly,” Education Minister George Abbott said this week. His colourful analysis was offered up at a briefing on new legislation that will flatten the College of Teachers and replace it with a new system for certifying and disciplining teachers.

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Mr. Abbott is being criticized for selling out to the BCTF because he tried so hard to get the union to like the replacement BC Teachers Council that he has given them a dominant role. The way he tells it, he was bringing home a dozen roses and saying sorry.

“We need to move to a more mature, more respectful, more constructive relationship between all the partners. I think this is a model that will produce that outcome,” he told reporters.

But coming as it does in the middle of contract talks, and a separate but equally heated dispute over class size and composition, the overture was spurned by the BCTF, which called the new council “regrettable.”

This is not just the back-and-forth of industrial relations, of course. In the midst of this poisonous relationship sit about 650,000 school kids.

However, the disputes are so entrenched, generations can’t remember it any other way.

B.C. opened its first public school in 1872. "Those first 100 years, we had a really harmonious system," said Thomas Fleming, a professor of educational history at the University of Victoria, in an interview.

As he charts in his book, Worlds Apart, that extended honeymoon ended 40 years ago.

The change was produced by a number of events: education was eating up an increasing share of the public purse, various interest groups gained influence, and politicians – through neglect or direct antagonism – alienated teachers. The result was the creation of a powerful and very political teachers' union.

Over the past four decades, the BC Teachers’ Federation has tangled with governments of every stripe. "We have been locked and loaded on this file with organizationally toxic relationships between the government and the BCTF," Prof. Fleming said.

And while B.C. students continue to do well, according to international standards, there is evidence of frustration with the turmoil and conflict. The number of kids opting out of the province's public school system has steadily increased since the 1970s. Independent schools now claim more than 11 per cent of B.C.'s school population.

Larry Kuehn, the BCTF’s director of research and a former union president, says the blame rests entirely with the other partner. He says the conflict continues because successive governments – even friendly New Democrat ones – have failed to spend enough on education.

Mr. Kuehn started teaching in B.C. classrooms in 1968. “We had the best salaries in the country but the worst working conditions.” After all the strikes and all the solutions imposed through legislation, teachers have surprisingly little to show for it. Today, he said, B.C. teachers no longer have the best salaries (they rank fourth among the provinces) but still have the worst class sizes.

“It would be great to have a friendly, consultative relationship but that requires we not be at the bottom of learning conditions and salaries,” he said.

Michael McEvoy, president of the BC School Trustees’ Association, is impressed that Mr. Abbott is at least trying to change the tone. All the players want to see a more mature relationship, he said, but there is plenty of blame to go around for the current culture.

“I’m not going to cast aspersions on any one party, but sometimes maybe we all lose track of what we are trying to do here, which is to be focused on students.”

On Wednesday, the employers asked the Labour Relations Board to dock the union millions of dollars for work that isn’t being done in “phase one” of the teachers’ job action that began in September. The two sides remain as angry and alienated as ever.

A brief history of labour relations with B.C. teachers:

Parents and teachers alike can rightly ask why the two sides can’t find a good marriage counsellor.

1987 – 1994: Fifty strikes and three lockouts under the local school board bargaining process.

1993: B.C. plans move to province-wide bargaining.

June 25, 1998: Failing to negotiate first a collective agreement, the government imposes one.

June 28, 2002: Government imposes the next collective agreement; teachers hold a one-day strike.

Oct. 7, 2005: Government imposes another collective agreement; teachers strike for two weeks.

June 30, 2006: Just 75 minutes before the deadline, the BCTF agrees to its first negotiated contract when the province offers public-sector workers signing bonuses. It remains, to date, the only negotiated settlement with teachers under province-wide bargaining. The five-year deal expired this year.

Aug. 31, 2011: BCTF issues strike notice. Phase one of job action ongoing, with teachers declining administrative duties.

Follow on Twitter: @justine_hunter

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