30 Years of Dysfunction, and Probably More

On September 16, after nearly a week of intense negotiations, British Columbia’s premier, Christy Clark, announced that a new collective agreement had been reached with the BC Teachers’ Federation. The BCTF recommended that its members vote to accept the tentative agreement. While there was some very outspoken opposition to the agreement, 86% of voters supported it, and schools reopened the week of Sept. 22.

In her September 16 statement, Clark, with Education Minister Peter Fassbender at her side, promoted the deal as “historic” and as ensuring “five years of labour peace”.

Those are five years which we can spend instead of [being in a constant state of bargaining] talking about the things that really matter….A negotiated settlement was really important because it allows us to reset that relationship which has been dysfunctional for so long….It means that we can sit respectfully and talk respectfully about…what really matters and that’s improving learning outcomes for kids. This is a remarkable achievement after 30 years of dysfunction …it will be a game changer for education in the long term because we will now be able to sit down with some of the most important people in the system, and that’s teachers, and work together rather than constantly arguing and fighting because we’re always in negotiations.

The deal is “historic” in the sense that the six-year term is longer than the term of any past collective agreement between the BCTF and the provincial government. (In reality it’s a five-year contract because it’s retroactive for one year, to the date when the previous collective agreement expired.) And although it would be more accurate to call the agreement a mediated settlement rather than a negotiated settlement, the deal was indeed concluded through negotiations – with the help of a mediator –  and not imposed through legislation or some other means of resolution. Whether the deal is going to create “labour peace”, though, is another question altogether.

It’s very difficult to give any credibility to the claim that “30 years of dysfunction” was ended by a single week of bargaining and with a single collective agreement. Here’s some of the government’s actions in this past round of bargaining:

It would be easier to believe that the government was serious about stopping the “arguing and fighting” if the government’s behaviour during the negotiations had been less confrontational and more collaborative.  Since the agreement was signed, there have been a few news stories like this one giving a different perspective on how the contract was reached, and also promising a new relationship between the parties. I have no reason to doubt the accuracy of the chronology in this particular story. But as pointed out by West Vancouver school district trustee Reema Faris, the narrative provided by the participants in the story misses several key pieces of contextual information, and lends itself all too neatly to a heroic intervention that (allegedly) resets the process.

A classroom in a BC school before....

A classroom in a British Columbia school before….

...and after a teacher brought in the supplies they purchased with their own money. (credit: contributed photos)

…and after a teacher brought in the supplies they purchased with their own money. (credit: contributed photos)

The real test of whether  “30 years of dysfunction” have been overcome will be in how the collective agreement language works in practice, and how the parties treat each other from now on. So….just within this past week, a couple of things have happened:

None of these events are any reason to be optimistic that the “30 years of dysfunction” are over. There may truly be a desire to create a better relationship between the BCTF and the government, and I would truly love for my lack of optimism to be proven wrong.  But actions speak louder than photo ops and press releases. The disputes over negotiating a collective agreement may have ended, but the “dysfunction” between the BCTF and BC’s provincial government is apparently not going away any time soon.

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