Back in October of 2012, British Columbia’s premier, Christy Clark, proposed the idea of a 10-year-long collective agreement for teachers in BC’s public school system. The proposal came after a long and bitter round of bargaining, which saw, among other things, a brief teachers’ strike that was shut down by back-to-work legislation, a BC Labour Relations Board ruling upholding the teachers’ decision to refuse volunteer assignments, and, eventually, a mediated settlement that produced a one-year collective agreement expiring in June 2013.
The idea of a 10-year-long collective agreement for the province’s teachers got a mixed reaction. I was interviewed on CBC Vancouver Radio’s Early Edition show about the idea, and in that interview I pointed out that 10-year collective agreements are very unusual in Canada. The length of the average Canadian public sector collective agreement, according to Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, is around three years. No one would dispute that collective bargaining in the BC public education system is difficult, and has been difficult for a very long time. A 10-year-long collective agreement could bring stability to BC’s education system by reducing the possibility of disruptions or shutdowns over bargaining disputes. But it would be very challenging to create a 10-year-long collective agreement that could accommodate every possible change in education during that time. And, to add to the complication, BC also has many different types of schools and school districts (e.g. rural/urban, large/small, richer/poorer). A 10-year-long collective agreement would also have to address the issues in all of these very different workplaces.
Despite these impracticalities, the idea of a 10-year-long collective agreement resurfaced again in January of this year. The BC government released this document, which included the 10-year-long collective agreement as one component of a framework to improve the public sector education bargaining process. Tellingly, neither the BC Teachers’ Federation (the teachers’ union) or the province’s school boards knew about this document until the government circulated a press release about it. The document had good words such as “transparency”, “dialogue”, and “respectful” – so it was surprising, to say the least, that neither the employers or the union who would be bargaining in this new framework seemed to have been included in its development. Nevertheless, the idea was undercut rather quickly within a few days of the document’s release, when the BCTF and the BC Public Schools’ Employers Association jointly ratified an agreement on the structure of their next round of negotiations. To try and avoid some of the problems in the last round of bargaining, they agreed to begin talks earlier than usual and to use a third-party facilitator right from the start.
The 10-year idea then kind of disappeared for a while. The BCTF and the BCPSEA had developed and agreed to these new bargaining structures on their own, and there was nary a whisper from either side about wanting a 10-year-long collective agreement. In the meantime, the government tried to promote a 10-year-long collective agreement in another part of the public sector, and it was rejected there too. After all that, one would think that a government that values “transparency, participation and collaboration” would acknowledge that the idea just wasn’t a good one, and move on. But – no.
As you might have heard, there’s going to be a provincial election in BC on May 14. This past Sunday evening, Premier Clark and the BC Liberal Party bought 30 minutes of TV airtime to broadcast “Strong Economy, Secure Tomorrow“, their election kick-off special (you can watch the whole thing here). The special featured, among other things, several scenes of Clark sitting in a diner having coffee with some voters… and in one of those scenes, guess what she said to them?
I think it’s time we got politics out of the classroom for kids. I think one of the best things we can do is pursue a 10-year collective agreement with teachers, so that for a decade there is no possibility of a labour dispute for our kids. I mean, think about it, if your son or daughter is in Grade 2 today, if they could get to Grade 12 without missing a single day of school due to a labour dispute, I mean, that would be great.
All I could think when I heard this was: oh, please. Not this again.
A decade without any labour disputes in the BC public education system would, indeed, be great. No one in the province would be unhappy if that happened. But the employers in the public education system have shown no interest in the idea of a 10-year-long collective agreement; the union in the system has shown no interest in the idea; and as far as I can tell, the public has shown no interest in the idea either. How many more times is this idea going to be brought out, in the face of such indifference and/or rejection?
A collective agreement is the outcome of the bargaining process. If the bargaining process isn’t working, and labour disputes are happening because of that, a long-term collective agreement isn’t going to fix that problem – particularly in a system where it’s important to quickly respond to change, and to be up to date in what’s being taught and how it’s being taught. The way to fix problems with a bargaining process is to fix the process itself.
The BCTF and the BCPSEA have together taken some very constructive steps toward bettering their bargaining relationship. It would be nice to see some validation and support for their cooperation and its result, and maybe even a commitment to working with them to create more improvements. Supporting positive moves toward more stability in the BC public education system would be much more productive and useful than once again dragging out an old idea that has already gone nowhere.