This week, the British Columbia Public School Employers’ Association (BCPSEA) – the employers’ representative in the current collective agreement negotiations with the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) – released a background document analyzing the BCTF’s most recent bargaining proposals. In the same week, The Tyee news website featured several past bargaining participants saying that the two parties’ attitudes have always been a barrier to concluding an agreement. In that context, the BCPSEA backgrounder deserves some closer attention, because, in my opinion, it is a demonstration of some of those problematic attitudes.
I don’t have access to either the BCPSEA’s or the BCTF’s actual bargaining proposals, so my comments are based on the publicly available information relating to the statements in the BCPSEA document. I’m not going to discuss the cost estimates which make up most of the document (pages 2-6), because without access to the actual proposals or to the data used to produce the estimates, I can’t evaluate the accuracy of these estimates. Therefore, my comments are mostly about the summary information on the first page of the document.
The full title of the BCPSEA document is “Barriers to Concluding a Negotiated Collective Agreement: Cost of BCTF Proposals Currently on the Table”. This title is misleading in several respects. The BCTF’s proposals have cost implications – but so do the BCPSEA’s. The BCPSEA, as the representative of one side in these negotiations, is going to frame its discussion to favour its position – as would the BCTF in a similar situation – but it’s not entirely accurate to imply that the barriers to reaching an agreement are the cost of the BCTF’s proposals. The barriers to a settlement (or at least some of the barriers) are the differences between the two parties’ proposals – and it is difficult to determine from the BCPSEA’s document how much of a barrier these differences are. The financial estimates in the document provide costs for the BCTF’s proposals, but not for the BCPSEA’s proposals. So it is impossible to compare the estimated costs of each side’s proposal to identify differences, or to assess the size of any differences. The BCPSEA’s cost estimates also don’t clearly indicate whether or how the BCTF’s proposals are more or less expensive than the cost of the last collective agreement.
The chart at the bottom of the document’s first page summarizes three of the items in the parties’ proposals, and contrasts the proposals with other public sector unions’ settlements on those items.
The increase in “total compensation” in settlements with other public sector unions is stated as 5.5%. The increase in “total compensation” in the BCTF’s proposal is stated as 14.5%. I’m assuming that the public sector agreements used for this comparison are the ones listed in this BC government document. However, in those agreements, 5.5% is the total wage increase. The 5.5% figure should not be compared with the 14.5% figure, because one only represents wages and the other apparently represents both wages and benefits. Also, several of the completed public sector collective agreements include increases in non-wage compensation-related items, such as improved benefits, or more professional development funds. Thus, the 5.5% figure should be higher if it is to accurately represent all of the compensation-related increases in these agreements. (And the 14.5% figure may also be inaccurately calculated, as this video suggests.)
The potential for compensation from the Economic Stability Dividend is mentioned in a footnote to the chart. However, these should not be considered as a source of increases, because the dividend’s value, if any, is yet to be determined. And while the completed public sector agreements did not include a signing bonus, as the chart shows, the completed agreements had a 1% wage increase in the first year. The BCTF’s most recent proposal included a signing bonus, but also proposed a 0% wage increase in the first year.
Another footnote to the chart states, “All other past public sector agreements ended in the spring of 2014 and have now been renegotiated to end in 2019”. Based on the BC government information linked above, this statement is incorrect. 96 public sector collective agreements (53% of the total number) are identified in this information as “yet to settle” (my own union being one of those currently in negotiations).
The impression from the information in the BCPSEA’s chart is that the BCTF is a rogue outlier, wilfully insisting on contract terms far out of line with what other public sector unions have peacefully settled for. This is similar to the message of the BC government’s recent newspaper advertisement about these negotiations – and, like the information in that advertisement, the BCPSEA’s information also needs some contextualization.
The provincial government is negotiating these contracts within the framework of what it calls the “Economic Stability Mandate”, which follows the 2010 “Net Zero Mandate” and the 2012 “Cooperative Gains Mandate”. Despite the formal authority implied by the word “mandate”, these frameworks represent policy and budgetary choices. The Economic Stability Mandate does not legally require the government to settle for particular contract terms, or for terms falling within specific numerical boundaries. So the government has the ability to offer contract terms different from those that other public sector unions have already agreed to, if it so chooses. There may be some constraints in this respect because of the “me-too clause” in at least one of the completed public sector collective agreements, which could increase the wage costs associated with those agreements if the government settles for higher wage rates elsewhere. But these restrictions are because of the language in those particular agreements, not because of any legal requirements associated with the “mandate”.
It also needs to be pointed out that a union settling for particular contract terms is not always the same as that union feeling that those terms are reasonable or fair. The largest settlement in the government’s list of completed agreements is the contract between the Health Employers Association of BC and the multi-union Facilities Bargaining Association (FBA), which represents 43,642 workers in 270 health-related occupations. This contract has the same 5.5% wage increases and five-year contract length as other recent public sector settlements; however, the result of the FBA’s contract ratification vote was 64% in favour of ratification. That was a high enough percentage for ratification, which requires a majority of 50% + 1, but it’s certainly not a strong endorsement of the settlement. The FBA’s secretary-treasurer stated that “the vote results should send a clear signal to government that health care workers are impatient with government’s inflexible and tight-fisted attitude at the bargaining table”. So if the BCTF feels that the government’s financial proposals to public sector unions are inadequate, it apparently is not the only union in BC that feels that way.
Finally, the overall presentation of the BCPSEA document does not display much of a cooperative or collaborative attitude toward resolving the BCTF and BCPSEA’s bargaining differences. For example, the BCPSEA has chosen to describe the BCTF’s proposals as “demands” and its own proposals as “offers”, and to use red ink to highlight large dollar amounts in the costing of the BCTF’s proposals. In a bargaining situation where the two parties apparently disagree on many major contract items, and where there is also a long history of animosity and hostility between the parties, the confrontational attitude conveyed by these presentation choices is really unfortunate.
There is a lot of frustration and anger on both sides at this point in this lengthy dispute, which is entirely understandable. However, those attitudes have to be overcome, along with the disagreements over specific items, if the current bargaining impasse is ever going to end. I understand that the BCPSEA intends this background document as an explanation of the reasons for the dispute, as it sees those reasons, and I understand that its explanation is structured to support its reasons. But the information and presentation in the document are not positive contributions toward resolving this dispute.