Some of this blog’s readers are likely already aware that the Canadian province of British Columbia (where I live) is going to have a provincial general election on May 9. Lots of issues are being raised in the election campaign: jobs, the cost of housing, natural resources, regional inequities, and campaign financing.
As in any election, education is also an important issue. The platforms of BC’s three major political parties – the Liberals (who, as the party with the most elected representatives in BC’s Legislature, are the current governing party), the New Democratic Party (NDP), and the Green Party – all have promises related to elementary and secondary (K-12) education. That’s heartening to see, because publicly-funded education is an essential part of a democratic, equal-opportunity society. However, the election discussions around BC’s K-12 public education system have not always included the significant events around that system in the last few years. I think these events should have a higher profile during this election – not just because of the impact of those events on BC education, but also because of the questions they raise about the conduct and decision-making of the current government.
In November 2016, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in favour of the BC Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) – the union representing teachers in BC’s K-12 public schools – in a case that arose out of a Liberal government decision in 2002. In that year, the government used its legislative powers to take the issues of class size and composition out of collective bargaining with the BCTF. I’ve written about the details and history of this case in other posts on this blog, here, here and here. The Supreme Court decision had the effect of restoring the deleted contract language into the government’s current collective agreement with the BCTF. This meant that the government and the BCTF had to negotiate new contract language to apply those restored conditions from 2002 to the K-12 education system of 2017.
One question that voters could reasonably ask about these events is why the conflict over the 2002 decision was before the courts for nearly 15 years. The BCTF is a large, powerful union and a tough negotiator. And since the provincial government is responsible for allocating public funds and providing public services, it’s not surprising that the government would be inclined to take a hard line in its relationship with the BCTF. It’s part of responsible governance to ensure that government-funded services are being delivered productively and cost-effectively.
However, being the steward of public funds also means being accountable for the decisions on how those funds are spent. At the time of the Supreme Court of Canada decision, the BCTF estimated that implementing the revised contract language would cost the government around $250 million a year. The interim agreement that the government and the BCTF reached in January will see the government investing $50 million in hiring new teachers and staff. There hasn’t been any estimate that I’ve seen of how much the government spent – in costs, resources, and/or staff time – in fighting the BCTF case in court for so long. But one can only assume that supporting such a complex case for such a long time would be extremely expensive. So the cost to the government of resolving the BCTF case is likely significantly higher than the expenditures it is now making.
In union-management relationships, often there are times when the cost of pursuing an issue – even if that cost is substantial – is less important than the opportunity to establish a principle or to set a precedent that might affect future negotiations or contracts. In that context, it’s worth remembering that in 2007 the Supreme Court of Canada ruled against the BC government in the Health Services case – another case involving government actions around contracts for BC public sector workers. The decision in that case established some clear expectations for governments’ appropriate use of legislative power during public sector contract negotiations. The fact that the BC government chose to pursue the BCTF case even after losing a similar case should raise questions about the government’s strategic choices in that situation, and the reasoning behind those choices.
Another issue that voters might consider, beyond the specific events at issue in the BCTF case, is the government’s overall pattern of conduct in relation to the BCTF. It’s no secret that the government and the BCTF have a long history of conflict and hostile negotiations, and in a union-employer relationship where the parties already have an unfavourable view of each other, it’s easy for tensions to quickly become inflamed. To have a functional relationship within such a volatile environment, both parties need to carefully consider the impact of their attitudes and actions.
In that turbulent context, it’s reasonable to question whether the government is making responsible choices in its negotiation strategies. In the last round of collective bargaining with the BCTF, the government ran newspaper ads that could be interpreted as misleading and unnecessarily provocative. Additionally, the BC Supreme Court ruling in one round of the BCTF case found that the government engaged in bad faith bargaining with the BCTF, including what the court characterized as “[a] strategy…to put such pressure on the union that it would provoke a strike by the union. The government representatives thought this would give government the opportunity to gain political support for imposing legislation on the union.” That these events occurred within the context of an already troubled relationship may raise further questions about the appropriateness of the current government’s strategic choices in managing its relationships as an employer.
An election campaign is rarely about a single issue. While education is a hugely important public service, and a costly one at that, the current BC provincial election isn’t and shouldn’t be just about education. There are other issues – and it’s perfectly reasonable to say that the BCTF case is finished, the government and the BCTF are cooperating on its outcomes, so we should just all move on. But that view overlooks the context of how the BCTF case arose, and what the events in that context suggest about the values and attitudes of the government that’s running for re-election. On May 9, BC’s voters will have the opportunity to decide if they want to endorse these kinds of perspectives.