BC Government Mandates Bargaining for 10-Year Teacher Agreement

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how the idea of a 10-year-long collective agreement for British Columbia public school teachers had raised its ugly head yet again in the context of the BC provincial election campaign.

The BC Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) and the provincial government’s representatives are currently negotiating their next collective agreement, to replace the agreement now in effect which expires in June. It was a very hopeful sign for this round of negotiations that the two parties, who in the past have been very adversarial, voluntarily and jointly agreed to some revisions in their bargaining structure and process. (The revisions are described in this briefing note from the BC Public School Employers’ Association [BCPSEA].) However, according to this story in the Globe and Mail, the newly re-elected Liberal government has just issued letters to both parties “rescind[ing] a previous bargaining mandate [for the government’s negotiators] and highlight[ing] the 10-year proposal as a point of negotiation”. Here is a copy of the letter sent to the BCPSEA.

The idea of a 10-year collective agreement was first introduced in October of last year, but was brought up again in January of this year, in a government document that neither the BCTF or the province’s school boards had seen or contributed to before it was released. So, in other words, the idea was developed without any input from the representatives of the employers and employees who would be working under the terms of such an agreement. And despite the 10-year idea being floated several times since then, including in another part of the BC public sector, it has been met either with indifference or outright condemnation. In short, nobody except the government seems to think that a 10-year agreement is realistic or workable.

The Globe and Mail‘s story on the new bargaining mandate includes this quote from BC Premier Christy Clark, from a meeting with the Liberal Party’s candidates during the election campaign:

We want labour peace for our kids in schools. We always have acrimony, and when we have acrimony, kids lose. We can get that acrimony out of the classroom and wait 10 years until we start bargaining again.

In light of this most recent news, these statements are extremely ironic – and are also a very selective interpretation of the realities of bargaining in the BC public school system. Everybody wants labour peace, of course – but “get[ting the] acrimony out” is not going to be accomplished by ordering the government’s negotiators to pursue a highly unpopular and highly impractical bargaining goal.

The new bargaining mandate is also particularly unfortunate in the context of the positive cooperation between the BCTF and the government’s representatives that started this round of bargaining. The parties are likely less acrimonious toward each other than they have been in the last several sets of negotiations; Silas White of the BCPSEA says that negotiations to date have been “extremely positive” and that the bargaining relationship between the two parties “is in a very good place”.  Notably, however, the Globe and Mail story also says that the BCTF first learned about the new bargaining mandate from the media, not directly from the government – which the BCTF’s president, not surprisingly, characterized as “disrespectful”. Disrespecting the interests of one party to this bargaining is also not going to diminish the “acrimony”.

It’s really unfortunate that BC’s newly elected government can’t endorse and support the parties’ own efforts to improve their bargaining relationship, and apparently can’t let the parties try to build on those improvements. Instead, the government has possibly derailed this positive direction by introducing a bargaining proposal that can only set the parties against each other. The government might have just received an electoral endorsement from the people of the province – at least from the less than 50% who bothered to get out and vote – but surely this mandate does not include continuing to cling to an idea that has essentially been rejected by both the employers and the employees it would affect. This stubbornness is not a good sign for labour relations in BC in the next few years.

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