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Posted: September 1, 2014

BCTF ignoring government’s fiscal reality: province

After mediator Vince Ready walked away from the bargaining table, citing the B.C. Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) and provincial government being too far apart for mediation to work, parents of B.C. school-aged children best prepare for alternative plans as the school year won’t begin tomorrow, Sept. 2.

Education Minister Peter Fassbender
Education Minister Peter Fassbender

“Today veteran labour mediator Vince Ready determined that the parties are too far apart for mediation at this time. I’m very disappointed for students, parents, and teachers. What should be a time of excitement and anticipation will instead be marked by frustration and uncertainty,” stated Education Minister Peter Fassbender August 30.

“I wish I could tell British Columbians when students will be back in school.  But right now, I don’t see any quick or easy solutions,” he said, adding, “Everything we’ve tried to do was to have schools open on time and to reach a settlement. Unfortunately, the BCTF leadership has stubbornly refused every effort to reach a fair deal and they have even refused to give teachers a chance to vote on suspending the pickets while an agreement is mediated.”

Meanwhile, BCTF President Jim Iker is calling on Premier Christy Clark to meet with him to help reach a fair settlement to the current strike/lockout before September 2.

Over the weekend in talks with Vince Ready, the BCTF trimmed its package by $125 million. By contrast the BC Public School Employers’ Association did not bring one penny to the table. Furthermore, the government is demanding a court case escape clause, that would in effect nullify two class size and composition wins in the BC Supreme Court and any future decision in teachers’ favour, the BCTF noted in a release on its website.

“The BCPSEA didn’t get the job done this weekend. They weren’t prepared or authorized to make the moves necessary to get the deal done,” Iker said. “Now it’s up to the Premier to step in and help get this deal done so that kids and teachers can get back to class.”

Kootenay East MLA and Minister of Energy and Mines and Minister for Core Review Bill Bennett said he believes the BCTF does not acknowledge the fiscal realities that the provincial government is wrestling with and are playing politics.

Bill Bennett
Bill Bennett

“I have quite deliberately not entered into the public debate in the East Kootenay on the topic of a new contract with the BCTF, hoping, despite past experience, this union could find a way to bargain in good faith on behalf of the thousands of great teachers in this province,” he said August 31.

“The BCTF simply ignores the government’s fiscal reality and the fact that many other public sector unions have come to terms. How can the BCTF expect the taxpayer to pay way more of an increase to one union than all other public sector unions? The BCTF knows full well that agreeing to its ridiculous wage demands would send the province into deficit, so why do they keep insisting behind closed doors that the taxpayer agree to such irresponsible demands?

“The answer clearly is that the BCTF leadership is more about partisan politics than students or teachers or the education system. I believe that the vast majority of teachers want to settle on reasonable terms and get back to work but their leadership is more interested in the same old tiresome class warfare that has captured this union for decades,” Bennett said, adding he’d like to see BCTF members tell their leadership that they’d prefer to teach classes than remain on strike while a negotiation is hammered out.

“The government is but one party to this labour negotiation. It takes two parties to negotiate an agreement and when one party insists on obscenely high cost increases, not even veteran mediator Vince Ready can fix it. Now, it is time that teachers tell their union leaders that they want to teach while talks continue. Stop the pickets and let the kids go back to school. The BCTF would take this reasonable step if it really is ‘all about the children,’” he said.

Fassbender agrees. “Negotiating a settlement requires union leaders to stand in front of their members and explain what has been achieved at the bargaining table. I worry the BCTF leadership is actually counting on government to legislate an end to this strike so they can avoid having a difficult conversation with their members about what is realistic and achievable,” he said, noting legislating an end to the strike is “the wrong thing to do. It would only keep us on the same dysfunctional treadmill that we’ve been on for the past 30 years. As hard as it is, we have to stand firm and hope the union leadership comes around to getting serious about negotiating a fair agreement.

“In the meantime, I want to encourage the BCTF leadership to canvass their members about temporarily suspending their pickets so schools can open and teachers can go to work,” Fassbender said.

“The gap is much bigger than what the BCTF has been making it to be, which was that the parties were close on all matters except class size and composition. Over the past few days it’s been a very different story behind closed doors. The union made no substantive effort to get anywhere near the zone on wages and benefits. Their moves were so small that their compensation demands remain nearly double what 150,000 other B.C. public sector workers have settled for. They even insist on a special $5,000 signing bonus that no one else received.

“It is wrong and misguided for the BCTF leadership to expect a bigger compensation package than all other public sector workers simply because they are willing to shut down schools. Their demands would plunge B.C. into deficit. No mediator can bridge that kind of gap.”

Fassbender continued by pointing out there is also a big gulf on how to deal with learning conditions.

“The British Columbia Public School Employers’ Association is offering solutions that focus resources where they can best help students. The union, meanwhile, continues to seek rigid class size numbers and teacher ratios that only increase the number of teachers but won’t necessarily address the actual learning needs of students in classrooms,” he said.

“The BCTF says they want government to be “flexible.” But what they really mean is that they want us to abandon our balanced budget. We are not going to go into debt, we are not going to raise taxes, and we are not going to be “flexible” with our commitment to be fair and even handed with all 300,000 B.C. public sector workers.

“We’ve been very clear and consistent ever since BCPSEA tabled its comprehensive offer back in June. The package on the table is fair and reasonable – both in terms of teacher pay and on class composition – and it is very near the limit of what we can afford.

“It includes a six-year term to provide stability for the education system, a seven percent wage increase that’s fully in line with increases already negotiated with other public sector employees, and guaranteed supports for classroom needs through the Learning Improvement Fund.

“BCPSEA is offering to hard-wire into the contract additional protections on class size, a guarantee of at least $375 million over five years to address complex classroom needs, a stronger role for teachers in deciding how to spend these funds, and an ongoing fact-finding committee to make sure educators have the best possible information to guide these important decisions.

“We remain willing to explore puts and takes, reasonable moves here and there. But mediation is not going to shake loose tens of millions of dollars – let alone hundreds of millions – that we simply do not have,” Fassbender said, concluding, “A prolonged strike is not going to change the basic fact that that best possible deal for teachers is a negotiated agreement that falls in the same affordability zone as all the other agreements already negotiated with more than 150,000 B.C. public sector workers.”


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