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‘We didn’t know anything about it’: BCTF president on Clark’s surprise Add to ...

In school-yard terms, it could be considered a promise by two parties to try to play nicely after repeated scraps. On Saturday, the B.C. Teachers’ Federation ratified an agreement that sets a framework for contract negotiations with the B.C. Public School Employers’ Association.

The BCPSEA, the bargaining agent for the province’s 60 school boards, also ratified the deal, setting a promising tone in a relationship that has been dominated by confrontation for the past decade.

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The two sides negotiated the agreement-in-committee in December, with an eye to setting ground rules for talks to replace an existing, two-year contract that expires at the end of June, 2013. That deal was reached after an acrimonious labour dispute that lasted the entire school year.

The BCTF and the BCPSEA ratified the agreement just days after Premier Christy Clark unveiled a separate proposal for a 10-year labour deal with teachers. Ms. Clark’s proposal quickly came under fire, with the BCTF questioning the timing of the proposal.

Susan Lambert is the president of the BCTF:

Before Ms. Clark’s announcement, the BCTF said on Twitter it would love to see a copy before her press conference. Did the BCTF have any input into the government’s proposal – and did the union really not know it was coming?

We didn’t know anything about it. We were approached to submit a brief on bargaining structures. So we did. The Premier several times in the fall talked about a 10-year deal; she never did talk to us about it. We hadn’t heard a word about it until Wednesday morning, when I was driving to work, I got a call from [B.C. Deputy Education Minister] James Gorman and he was giving me a heads-up to the release of what he called a white paper on Thursday morning. And he said he could get me a copy but that I would have to agree to an embargo until Thursday morning. Our first glimpse of this proposal was Wednesday evening.

Ms. Clark’s proposal came as the BCTF and BCPSEA were about to vote on a new framework for the next round of bargaining. Does her proposal overlap or match with what the union and the employers’ bargaining agent have come up with?

No. And it’s perplexing to know that they sometimes contrast. One of the elements that we [the BCTF and BCPSEA] have in our agreement is an early start to bargaining. We are proposing to start on Feb. 4. If you look at the timelines in the White Paper, they start in March. It was troublesome for us to receive this document given the timing – because government knew that both parties [the BCTF and BCPSEA] had come to this agreement and both parties were going through ratification process this weekend.

Do you see anything positive or promising in Ms. Clark’s proposed framework?

The idea of jointly researching costs – a mutual agreement on the basic costs. So that when you go into bargaining, you’re at least talking the same language.

After Ms. Clark unveiled her proposal on Thursday, the BCTF said her plan meant teachers would not be able to negotiate working conditions. Later in the day, Education Minister Don McRae said the BCTF was mistaken – and that teachers would have the right to negotiate working conditions, including class size and composition, under the new proposal, “whether it is towards a two-year contract or a ten-year contract.” What is the public to make of those opposing interpretations?

We read the proposal and it said policy matters have become a “distraction” and that we need to focus on those issues at a policy table … so in our view, we just read that and I’m still assuming what they are trying to do here is move a critical objective of ours to another table.

What I think they are proposing is that we cede our rights that we have won in the courts to bargain class size and composition at the bargaining table and do that discussion in a different forum.

The BCTF is still fighting in court over Bills 27 and 28 – legislation introduced in 2002 that removed teachers’ rights to negotiate class size and composition. A B.C. Supreme Court ruling in 2011 found parts of the legislation to be unconstitutional and gave the province a year to fix it. The province says Bill 22 – introduced last year – is its response to that court ruling. The BCTF disagrees. What’s happening in court?

The court case is being heard in September. We still haven’t got the language that was stripped out of our collective agreements back. We should have been able to bargain class size and composition in the last bargaining round – instead we got Bill 22, which pushed our rights to bargain class size and composition to June, 2013 – another year. We are taking that back to the courts, saying [the court decision] gave a year, not two years.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Follow on Twitter: @wendy_stueck

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