A fine BCPSEA and BCTF mess

British Columbia public school teachers, represented by the BCTF, are undertaking rotating job action this week (and next, we just learned) to back contract demands. From Monday to Thursday, kids will be out of school one day per week, per district. Limited administrative job action began in April.

The BCPSEA, the bargaining agent for the government, retaliated by first announcing teachers would be docked pay and soon after, issuing a partial lockout notice of their own, followed by a clarification of the lockout. The lockout/pay docking caused a lot of confusion amongst teachers and the public alike.

The BCTF has been without a contract since June 2013, and without a wage increase since the prior contract expired in 2011. That deal was for 15% over six years, with a $4000 signing bonus, one of many deals the provincial government signed with public sector unions to ensure labour peace during the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics.

Acrimony

Class size and composition language had been included in the contracts of the 90’s, but was unilaterally stripped by then Education Minister (and current Premier) Christy Clark in 2002 under legislation which the courts have called illegal and unconstitutional, both in 2011, and again in 2014, regarding similar legislation passed by the Liberals in 2012. The Liberal government is currently appealing the 2014 decision.

The B.C. Supreme Court ruled that the province must retroactively restore class size and composition language that was removed from teachers’ contracts in 2002, and pay the B.C. Teachers Federation $2 million in damages … since 2002 B.C. has lost 1,400 specialist teachers, while close to 700 special-education teachers, more than 100 counsellors and 300 teacher-librarians have been cut from the system

As the Liberals had implemented an education spending freeze at the time, from 2001-2005 they mandated salary increases for teachers and then forced school districts to pay for them out of existing budgets, without the option of running deficits to compensate.

Since the move to province-wide bargaining from district-based bargaining in 1994, teachers and the government (of all political stripes) have had a somewhat toxic relationship. In those 20 years, we’ve seen labour unrest in the education sector several times.

Currently

The BCTF is looking to be made whole on all fronts in these negotiations. Citing years of zeros and workload, they seek what they consider to be long overdue improvements in wages and benefits. Citing the court decision referred to above, they also want class size and composition language reinstated into the collective agreement. While appealing the court ruling, the government doesn’t appear interested in going there.

Wages

Wage proposals exchanged between the two parties this spring are still far apart. The BCPSEA has posted proposals and responses on their website, while I could find no such repository on the BCTF site, so I have to use the BCPSEA’s.

The most recent response in early May indicates that the union is still looking for 10.75% over four years, plus CoLA increases of 2.75% over four years, for a total of 13.5%. The latest BCPSEA offer is for a little more than half of that (7.25%) over five years. The government steadfastly insists that teachers must settle for what the rest of the BC public service has recently.

The BCTF doesn’t (that I could find) post similar documents, but denies their demands are as high as the media is reporting. The government compounds the annual wage, benefit and CoLA percentages of the teachers’ demands and arrives at a total settlement of 21.5% or $646 million in extra funding, claiming it is much too high. I’ve never been able to find any kind of actual BCTF costing of their wage and benefit demands.

While they are currently compensated below the national average, BCTF claims that BC has some of the lowest paid teachers in Canada are debatable. According to CKNW, StatsCan pegs BC teacher compensation at the low end of the national average. The average starting salary for a teacher in Canada is $44,861 while it’s $41,963 in BC. Similarly, top of scale starting salary in Canada is $71,608 while it’s $64,131 in BC. Given the relatively high cost of living in BC, I don’t doubt that compensation should be higher.

I am in support of decent wage increases for teachers, and the government offer is low. However, two to three times the current government offer (depending on the number you believe) isn’t happening. Rudimentary math tells me that, depending on many factors, somewhere between 8-12% would get teachers to the middle of the pack. And, therein lies the problem. Without wage formulas tied to the actual cost of living, this debate never ends. What makes it most difficult to support BCTF wage demands is that they are unwilling to put hard numbers to what they want. Percentages are abstract.

Government spending per student

The BCTF claims that the government lags behind in per student spending on education, to the tune of $1000 less than the national average. Citing 2010-11 StatsCan figures, a Vancouver Sun editorial suggests it’s a smaller gap.

The province does, in fact, spend the second lowest amount per student nationally, with PEI setting the low water mark at roughly $11,800. At nearly $12,000 per student, BC actually spends about $725 per student less than the national average. When the northern territories’ artificially high average of $19,000 per student is removed, BC is even closer to the national provincial average in spending per student.

The question to ask, it would seem, is not how we compare to other provinces, but what the appropriate amount is to be spending. Particularly since our outcomes are quite strong, simple dollars per student formulas aren’t the entire determinant. I haven’t heard either party ask that question, but as with wages and benefits, the BCTF simply wants more without first determining what’s needed and why. If outcomes are good, the government can point to that and suggest per student funding is sufficient.

In fact, that may be a reason why I’ve never read anything suggesting the BCTF has proposed creative solutions with existing budget. This applies to the government too, but why doesn’t the BCTF look at where money is currently spent and make constructive suggestions for reallocation of funds? I’m not suggesting they stop asking for new money, but creativity would show they’re serious about a settlement, as they constantly claim.

Class size and composition

As per the BCPSEA’s published responses, the two parties’ interpretations of the recent legal decision’s effect on class size and composition language for a settlement are miles apart. It appears to me that the main sticking point here is that the union wants negotiation to start with that language back in and that the employer wants it to be just another issue to be bargained.

The BCTF has compiled significant research supporting claims that class size matters and says that students are not getting the individual attention they need in many cases. Indeed, with the loss of 1,400 specialist teachers, close to 700 special-education teachers, more than 100 counsellors and 300 teacher-librarians since 2002, it would be hard to argue that services to students are not stretched. While these are additional bodies for the composition part of the equation, they don’t speak directly to class size numbers.

The BCTF is expecting a return to the 2002 language that was illegally stripped by Christy Clark as education minister and subsequently ordered back by the BC Supreme court. Here’s what that would look like:

  • Kindergarten – 20 students
  • Grade 1–3 – 22 students
  • Grades 4–7 – 28 students
  • Grades 8–12 – 28 students

In truth, it would appear that 2002 contract language would include limits that are higher than the current average across the board. According to Peter Fassbender, average class sizes in BC are as follows – Kindergarten – 19.3, grade 1-3 – 21.5, grade 4-7 – 25.7, and grade 8-12 – 23.0. This particular point is where province-wide bargaining simply doesn’t work. Class size and composition needs are vastly different, based on geography, socio-economic, cultural and myriad other issues.

Regardless of where actual class size is across the board at present, it’s pretty clear that the cost of implementing Griffin’s decision is unknown and complicated.

Peter Fassbender, the province’s minister of education, has said it could cost $1 billion. Affidavits prepared by school superintendents filed with the government’s application to stay Griffin’s decision pending an appeal suggest it would take nearly 3,000 teachers and $300 million a year to restore the provisions.

From the union’s perspective, apparently the cost is closer to $300 million total or 30% of what the government claims it could be. Just re-instating the 2500 teachers the union claims were lost would probably be $300 million, let alone additional costs. The truth is likely somewhere between the two parties’ extremes.

I’m not sure if 2500-3000 new teachers are required to reinstate the 2002 provisions, but wouldn’t figuring that out be a good place to start? If they can’t even agree on what class size and composition level changes would cost, how can the parties possibly agree to what they might implement or what a settlement looks like? I’d also strongly suggest that, while wages and benefits could remain at a provincial table, at the very least, class size and composition needs to be discussed at a much more local level, so that specific district and school issues can be better accommodated.

My main problems

The problems outlined above belong to both sides. The BCPSEA has clearly acted in bad faith, ripping up contracts in the past, and even purposely provoking strike action. Unfortunately, the BCTF falls down in my mind, through weakly articulated financial positions. Instead, they simply repeat their mantra for more to do better by kids. More teachers, more say in determining class size/composition, higher wages, better benefits … you get the idea. The mere suggestion of compromise or taking a different tactic is met with fingers in ears.

Social media sanctimony

I can’t really finish this post without addressing the fun I had late last week with one particular BCTF member. I’ve had Twitter conversations with many teachers since last Thursday and most are reasonable, understanding that we all have opinions, and not one of us is completely right or wrong. I also understand that teachers work hard and that doing so within the environment the government has created in the past dozen years is very challenging.

However, this self-appointed soul of the membership, chimes in and repeats tired mantras ad nauseam. At one point early in our engagement, he actually agreed with my main point that the BCTF had to do a better job of engaging and shaping public opinion; in short, better PR. From then on though, he pretty much demonstrated that he couldn’t have cared less how the public perceived him or his union. That his approach is seeminlgy supported by BCTF leadership is possibly even sadder than his behaviour.

If I disagreed with any teachers about anything I was “sowing discontent.” If I felt a less antagonistic approach or different bargaining positions would be better, I was a conservative. Suggesting that throwing endless money at the problem was wrong triggered chants of “neoliberalism.” When I pressed him for statistical proof that the public was onside, I was guilty of “positivism.” At one point one of his ilk chimed in, claiming I was ignorant without realizing that I was actually in favour of wage increases. He is fast to label anyone who doesn’t agree with his opinion completely as some type of ist. It’s an arbitrary and easy way of dismissing people as being of lesser worth, while not really engaging in any kind of debate, or respecting that any other opinions might have some validity.

Several teachers defended him in somewhat lukewarm terms, as a “fierce defender” or noting that he’d “ripped into them too” on occasion. In fact, just saying I’d had a run-in with one of their louder mouths and most knew exactly who I was talking about. When I asked him directly what the demands were, he claimed they weren’t bargaining in the media. When I pressed, he trotted out the common but totally inaccurate number of 10% over four years, without mentioning CoLA. When I asked what that was in actual dollars, all I got was “contingent.”

Closing thoughts

With no costing on their wage and benefit demands and vague claims that class size and composition could be achieved for $300 million, it’s hard to take the BCTF (as a union, not individual teachers) seriously. While there’s no way to be sure government claims of up to $1 billion for class size and composition AND $646 million in wages and benefits are accurate, it’s easy for the government to claim BCTF demands are way too rich, since they at least have numbers. While I want teachers to be fairly compensated, with reasonable supports and workloads, I can’t blindly support uncosted demands for more. Plus, if they actually calculate a real number, then there’s something to talk about.

I’m not sure if it ever occurs to the BCTF that getting back the 2500 or so teachers they’ve lost in the past 12 years means a lot more jobs. Maybe there’s a middle ground that suggests more moderate wage expectations if a lot more teachers have jobs – or simply put, focus the bargaining efforts on size and composition. More members paying dues is ultimately better for the union, too, while more human resources working directly with the kids benefits the students most. While all I hear from the BCTF is money, I’d be a much bigger fan of the union if the tone was more about the people they need.

Further, if the parties would agree to a CoLA formula that addressed living in BC, a target range for salaries when compared with other provinces (and not skewed by the northern territories), and finally a formula that addresses wage/benefit differences between districts, salaries wouldn’t have to be as contentious. If they also addressed class size and composition at the district level and not provincially, it might make negotiations smoother still.

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