Teachers ready for job action as school about to begin

With students throughout the Kootenays set to go back to school on Sept. 6, teachers in B.C. are still without contract.

  • Aug. 31, 2011 9:00 a.m.
Twin Rivers Elementary School in Castlegar is quiet during the summer break but soon it will be teeming with kids as school returns Sept. 6. However

Twin Rivers Elementary School in Castlegar is quiet during the summer break but soon it will be teeming with kids as school returns Sept. 6. However

With students throughout the Kootenays set to go back to school on Sept. 6, teachers in B.C. are still without contract.

Currently, there are bargaining negotiations between the BC Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) and B.C. Public School Employers Association (BCPSEA), both at the provincial level and local level. The BCPSEA bargains for the Provincial Government in contract negotiations.

“I would say at this point the government’s net zero mandate, which is what they’ve used with almost all the public service sector unions, is the largest stumbling block to productive negotiations,” said Kootenay Columbia Teachers’ Union (KCTU) President Alex Davidoff.

The net zero mandate means the government will only negotiate public service contracts provided there is a zero net increase in costs.

“If we were to accept a net zero settlement and enter into a multi-year contract we’d be way behind the eight ball,” said Davidoff. “We are ranked ninth as a province in pay in Canada.”

Chair of the BCPSEA board Melanie Joy, a school trustee from SD#8 Kootenay Lake, is confident a deal can be reached.

“The negotiations are still going on,” she said. “The process is going as well as can be. I do believe we can still come to a collective agreement conclusion. We did that in 2005 with our first negotiated agreement so we’re pretty confident we can do that again.”

Joy points to the agreements made between other public sector unions and the government as a positive sign that a settlement can be found.

“There have been many other collective agreements within the public sector that have also settled. Also, there are other alternatives that can take place,” she said. “There are negotiations going every day. We’re hoping to go through the long weekend. We proposed those dates to the BCTF but haven’t heard back yet.”

For a teacher/government negotiation comparison, Davidoff points to the recent teacher’s strike in Saskatchewan. British Columbia ranks behind Saskatchewan, a province which saw its first teacher strike this year, he said. “They were ahead of us in salary. The conservative government in Saskatchewan was offering them 5.5 per cent over three years. The government there also said they really value teachers there. What they ended up doing is going to a mediator and agreeing to pay the Saskatchewan teachers based on a Western Canada average. While, Saskatchewan didn’t want to use B.C. in the Western Canada average because we skew the average way down.”

Davidoff also said that the B.C. teachers have not had a benefits enhancement in over 20 years. Another important issue for the teachers is class size and composition.

“It’s as important as salary and benefits,” said Davidoff. “In 2002, Christy Clark was the Minister of Education, she introduced legislation stripping our bargain for collective agreement language that guaranteed class sizes and composition of classes.

“Most of the other unions that had this happen to them sued the government,” Davidoff continued. “We waited for the health services case to finish and we continued with our case. In April of this year, the B.C. Supreme Court ruled that what Christy Clark did to us what unconstitutional. We’re hoping the government settles the court case soon. The government gave them a year.

“What we’re bargaining for now is for the government to reinstate the funding for the whole province of $270 million and reinstate our stripped language that we have for class sizes and composition.”

There are currently around 12,000 classroom over the legislate limits, Davidoff said.

“So on top of taking the money out of education, they increased the class size limits, they changed how classes are composed. Under their formula, you could have a class of 25 students with eight special needs students and that’s okay.”

The provincial bargaining unit has met 27 times, said Davidoff, with no progress.

“Our contract expired June 30, but we were negotiating well before that date. In 27 sessions, it’s gone nowhere.”

Despite not having a contract, teachers will be back at work this fall since teaching has been ruled an essential service by the government.

“We’ve gone before the Labour Relations Board (LRB) and in the event there is no progress in negotiations before the start of school the LRB has approved what we are not required to do if we go into phase 1 job action,” said Davidoff.

The BCTF took a strike vote in June, which was 90 per cent in favour of striking. “So we have approval on Phase 1 which is, we just teach, we don’t do administrative stuff. We don’t do report cards, we don’t do supervision – unless there is no administration to do it. Safety overrides. We basically just teach,” said Davidoff.

Extracurricular activities such as sports will not be affected in phase one.

“We haven’t given 72-hour strike notice yet. That could happen before school starts. Notice would have to be given the Friday (Sept. 2) before school starts,” said Davidoff. “If we were to implement phase 1 on Sept. 6. Right now we’re back to school as usual unless the strike notice is given.”

Davidoff said in the Kootenay-Columbia region, they will be having emergency meetings with teachers.

“I’ve got parents calling in concerned for their kids. We need to do something for parents as well as teachers. We’re having emergency meeting starting next week with our union executive and a general meeting the first week of school just to brief teachers about what’s going on.”

The bargaining table won’t be affected by job action if it happens, said Joy. “They will continue to bargain through

phase one,” she added. “It’s something that will be a stress on school districts and the negotiating team will be very aware of it.”

Joy is fearful that job action will affect students and parents. “Anytime you have any sort of strike action within schools, it’s going to affect schools and children. I don’t think you can separate them. It changes the dynamics in the atmosphere of schools,” she concluded. “I do believe there will be some impact on the schools definitely. We’re all concerned with that.”