BALDREY: NDP learning how tough B.C. Teachers' Federation talks can be

Two old issues that never go away have emerged to potentially thwart any chance the NDP government has of being able to negotiate a new contract with the B.C. Teachers’ Federation without some kind of strike action taking place first.

I refer, of course, to the thorny issues of class size and class composition. These two issues have dominated every round of contract talks for decades and they are doing so again in this round, which began back in February.

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The BCTF won an important high court decision several years ago that reinstated the contract language defining those two issues after it was “stripped” out of the collective agreement by the former B.C. Liberal government in 2002.

The employer group – the B.C. Public Schools Employers’ Association, or BCPSEA – spent the past two years canvassing school districts and superintendents about the effects of that language in the classroom, and the almost universal reaction was that the language was virtually unworkable, as it was incredibly rigid and restrictive.

So about a month ago the BCPSEA proposed new contract language around class size and composition, to give school districts more flexibility. Strict ratios would be replaced and superintendents would have more power to “break ties” when the union and the employer could not agree.

Well, the BCTF went ballistic at this idea. The union apparently feels the contract language that was restored by the Supreme Court of Canada (the court did not rule on the merits of the language, just that it was wrong for the government to arbitrarily remove it) is now there for perpetuity.

The employer argues that that position is nonsense, and that the court simply said the language was indeed restored but was also subject to further collective bargaining.

Given that the language has been the subject of relentless grievances by the BCTF – total grievances cost $2.4 million last year alone – there must be some things wrong with it. However, for now the union’s position is that the language is sacrosanct and cannot be significantly changed.

I am not surprised the BCTF wants to hang onto that language – after all, its fight to restore it was a long and bitter one. However, I am also not in the least surprised the employer wants to bargain significant changes to it, given how many problems result from it.

Indeed, it is hard to see how a section of any collective agreement can never, ever be revisited at the bargaining table, which seems to be the BCTF’s position regarding class size and composition.

It is deeply ironic to watch the NDP – once the champion of the BCTF in its long court fight with government – now essentially taking the exact same view the B.C. Liberals held when it comes to that language: it is unworkable, out of date and fails students and teachers.

It is another example of the realities of governing clashing with the political rhetoric that is the stuff of political Opposition.

And it is fairly clear that Finance Minister Carole James and Education Minister Rob Fleming are getting frustrated by a union known for its ability to frustrate and bewilder governments of all political stripes.

They may have thought that boosting education funding by a record amount, hiring more than 3,000 new teachers, ramping up seismic upgrade spending and building new schools may have improved their standing with the BCTF. Sorry, no dice.

The good news is that the two sides are still at the negotiating table and the contract does not even expire until June 30. Even better news is BCTF president Glen Hansman’s recent statement that the union is prepared to negotiate during the summer and even into the fall, which is a change from previous rounds of bargaining.

However, if neither side moves off their positions, which are poles apart, on arguably the key issues at the table, then B.C.’s teachers may eventually find themselves on a picket line. Again.

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC.

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