British Columbia’s New Democrats gather in Victoria on Friday for a weekend convention to celebrate their accomplishments: More than two years into a precarious minority government, they are methodically chipping away at a long list of changes that they could only dream about during their 16-year-long sentence served on the opposition benches.
Not coincidentally, the BC Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) has picked this same weekend, and this same town, for an emergency meeting of its governing body, the representative assembly. It aims to use that gathering to maximize pressure on its notional allies in government as it seeks gains at the bargaining table. For this union, the NDP is not changing fast enough.
The NDP is British Columbia’s party of the labour movement, but the BCTF won’t let New Democrats enjoy their weekend.
Teachers in B.C. won the right to collective bargaining more than 30 years ago, but their union has little experience with successful contract talks, no matter which political party is in power.
While the relationship with the Liberal government that ruled B.C. from 2001-2017 was particularly toxic, dealings with the NDP have been little better.
“It is evident there is a disconnect between the parties that will not allow them to reach a collective agreement," mediator David Schaub concluded in his report tabled Nov. 1 after four months of trying to help guide the parties to a settlement. "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.”
In fact, many of the major obstacles in this round of contract talks with the teachers go back to the NDP government of the 1990s.
It was the NDP that, in 1994, moved to province-wide bargaining on items that involve costs: salaries, benefits, workload and class-size restrictions. Two years after that, it reduced the number of school districts to streamline local bargaining on other matters. The BCTF still nurtures a grudge over those changes and insists at the bargaining table on deferring to its locals.
But it was an intervention in 1998 that set the stage for the longest-running conflict in B.C.'s public schools. At that time, the NDP was seeking to impose restraint in public-sector contract settlements; the BCTF only got on board in exchange for legislated, province-wide class-size limits.
The price of implementing those limits was too rich for the next government. The Liberals, in 2002, stripped the class-size language from the teachers’ contract, setting in motion a lengthy, costly and ultimately losing court battle.
The NDP, since returning to power in 2017, has been working to reconcile the court-ordered restoration of class size and composition limits in today’s classrooms. It has added more than $1-billion to help implement the old contract language, but it has not been a smooth transition and the teachers’ union maintains it still isn’t enough.
In the current round of public-sector bargaining, the province has established a framework that provides wage increases of up to 2 per cent in each year of a three-year contract. So far, 82 of the 184 public-sector unions have signed new collective agreements under these terms. Every one of them has tapped into funding, called the service improvement allocation, that allows for targeted wage adjustments on top of the 2-2-2 formula.
But the teachers’ employer cannot go beyond that without triggering similar increases – known as the me-too clause – that would ripple across the public sector. A 1-per-cent wage increase beyond the mandate would amount to an additional $300-million in costs to the treasury, according to the Finance Ministry.
The BCTF says the wage offer on the table is not sufficient. “To get a good deal that supports teachers and improves learning conditions, the government needs to bring more money to the table,” the union wrote in its most recent update to its members. “That is a political decision.”
This spring, BCTF members flooded NDP MLAs’ e-mail inboxes with 20,000 letters calling for more money. This fall, the campaign has shifted to rotating protests outside the MLAs’ offices. The BCTF has learned one thing in more than three decades of bargaining and that is to be relentless. The governing New Democrats, many of them with their roots in trade-union activism, are feeling the heat.
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