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A nest of adders

B.C. Teachers Federation president Jim Iker (left) speaks to teachers during a work stoppage by teachers outside Charles Dickens Elementary in Vancouver on May 26, 2014. Photo by Wayne Leidenfrost, PNG

B.C. Teachers Federation president Jim Iker (left) speaks to teachers during a work stoppage by teachers outside Charles Dickens Elementary in Vancouver on May 26, 2014. Photo by Wayne Leidenfrost, PNG

I have not commented on the teacher’s strike for the very good reason that I can’t think of much to say. To start with I have no children or grandchildren in the system. They’re all too old for that now. I did, however, have a special needs grandson who went through the school system complete with teacher’s aides. I do know something about the system from that point of view.

The history of teacher negotiations in the province of British Columbia is a long, sad one. It all started. you might remember, with teachers negotiating with individual school boards. This led to a process known as “whipsawing” where the teachers would use a settlement with one school district to bludgeon the next one down the line.

One must be very careful here not to allow prejudices to seep in and there are lots of prejudices for both sides of this ever increasing and ever useless debate.

To try to summarize, starting in the 70’s, there were two main contests going on at the same time. The teachers were in great internal debate as to whether or not the BC Teachers’ Federation should be a trade union or a professional organization. When you hear them talk now, you would think that this was a slam dunk but I can tell you I was there at the beginning and it certainly wasn’t. To this day there are resentments within the teaching profession from people who did not want to become a trade union and felt that that was unprofessional.

On the other side of the coin, the people doing the negotiating for the schools were not actually the employers in the full sense of the word. They were indeed the employers in that they represented the Principals and administration of the schools but they did not pay the money. That was done of course by the provincial government who, on the other hand, while they paid the money, did not have the day-to-day management of affairs as their responsibility.

During the 1980’s governments tried to get involved with several bits of legislation, none of which succeeded. To hear the BCTF talk, you’d that this was the “bad old Socreds” at work. However, during this period the government was NDP – presumably a friend of the BCTF.

When the Liberals came in in 2001 the government was seen by the BCTF as the enemy, as the devil incarnate, and not without reason as the new education minister, Christy Clark, set her sights on getting the upper hand. Relations, no paradise anyway, became even worse and acrimonious lawsuits began and we reach the point where we are now – the government is the paymaster but does not have anything to do with running the schools on the day-to-day basis. On the other hand, the BCTF  not only represented the teachers but has the right to enter the field of policy, with the right at least, partly, to represent the children and the parents in terms of class size. While one can understand why the union wants to know how big the job they are to do for the money to be paid, this right stuck in the craw of the government and those who support them. The entire situation became a nest of adders and one can see how this saga goes on and on and on feeding upon itself.

The BCTF is now a traditional trade union, and acts like it as it should. The government, on the other hand, has conflicts of interest you could drive a Mack truck through.The government is supposed to represent all of us. Now that we’re in a strike involving every citizen of the province, some on one side, some on the other side, some in between, the government is supposed to be evenhanded. I cannot think of anybody less evenhanded than Christy Clark who, from her days as Minister of Education has been seen – and rightly so – by the BCTF as their enemy.

Surely no one would seriously suggest that Premier Clark speaks for the population of British Columbia in this dispute. She is highly prejudiced and has a huge political stake in the outcome. At the same time, what is the Minister of Education doing involved in this fight when his only concern is education but not money? He is not the Minister of Finance who bears the brunt.

What we have is one hell of a big mess that nobody seems to want to address. To give to one side of the dispute the right to end that dispute by legislation whenever they wish is plainly wrong. What the alternative is, has yet to be determined and is, frankly, a puzzlement.

The people responsible for not addressing the problems are the government of British Columbia going back a very long way, even long before 2001 when the present government took over.

There simply must be a better way of negotiating these situations. This is not the only time governments get into a conflict of interest – when they’re dealing with government employees the situation is much the same where the employer has got the right to stop the strike and legislate people back to work when it wishes.

What we can see here, is that while one can make the case for the government dealing directly with the BCGEU, the HEU, etc.  they have no place in the teachers dispute. They are as out of place as a cow at a christening.

Coming out of all of this must be a solution. This strike is at the fizzling stage and it rather looks as if it will end soon with legislation which will get teachers back to work but make no progress whatsoever towards solving the ultimate problems that I have raised. As a matter of fact, far from solving these problems, it will aggravate them.

As soon as the BCTF became a union and the government of British Columbia became the de facto employer, the Labour Relations Act kicked into place and nothing could be less appropriate than that.

My suggestion would be, only because I can’t really think of another one, a Royal Commission into setting up the mechanics of dealing with teachers’ disputes. That must be its only term of reference.

No one can blame the BCTF for acting like a trade union because that’s precisely what they are. Their obligation is to their members and from my point of view they fulfill that obligation well enough to be satisfactory to the members of the union.

A beginning must be found. If the present dispute is settled by  legislation, as now seems likely, a terrible situation will be even worse.

I suspect that there will be more cooperation from the  BCTF behind closed doors trying to find a solution to this mess then the government gives them credit for.

In all events, this has gone on long enough and has as many have said those who suffer are the children seeking their legitimate right to an education. But if the process doesn’t change, there is little point in settling this dispute.

What we need from Premier Clark is not rhetoric played to the cameras, but leadership.

If that is not forthcoming, this will simply go on and on and on.

3 Responses to “A nest of adders”

  1. Gavin Bamber says:

    Errors here: “During the 1980′s governments tried to get involved with several bits of legislation, none of which succeeded. To hear the BCTF talk, you’d that this was the “bad old Socreds” at work. However, during this period the government was NDP – presumably a friend of the BCTF.”

    1980’s had the Socreds in power and creating the right to collective bargaining (and strikes) in 1987. Also created was the BC College of Teachers in order to separate the union duties from their professional duties. The BCTF promptly took it over, making it dysfunctional and pointless. (It was disbanded in 2012.)

    It was the 1990’s when the NDP were in office.

  2. RON PLECAS says:

    A few years ago when I chaired the Nanaimo Mental Health and Addictions Advisory Council, it was obvious there were situations/behaviours which occur within our culture that are not conducive to positive mental health. A prime example at that time was the Nanaimo School District situation where some teachers were laid off at the end of the school term. Short of being a psychopath, we all can visualize what that situation does to the employees and their families. And I can’t imagine the school district was happy with it either. With negotiations occurring, I did approach a union official who wished the Council not become involved as negotiations were at a tense point. I agreed to not become involved but that decision wasn’t the brightest I’ve ever made.
    Today the situation between the government and the union is even worse. I think Rafe’s comments are very appropriate but if I take the politics out of the equation, I still see a practice occurring in today’s society which leads to tremendously poor mental health for all concerned. Certainly I have my own personal view point but I can, and we all should be able to, distance ourselves from the personal aspect and look at it from a collective aspect. Rafe’s very words show us behaviour that is excessive in regards to the stress it places upon ourselves. While stress has a very natural and productive place in our lives, excessive stress is not always so. We must remember that stress can easily become an acccumulative issue meaning while we may reach an accord with issues, there is a good liklihood that the stress simply remains in our bodies. And too, of course, is the evidence that stress can be a mitigating factor in activating genes which are not good to activate, such as some mental illnesses and all other illnesses for that matter.
    This issue of mental health needs be resolved for the health of all. Perhaps this is not the time to take it into account although those of us who are concerned about mental health ‘now’ would disagree. After all, we know how our health is being affected. We can only guess at what it’s doing to our children but that guess would very much be one full of education.

  3. Rafe Mair says:

    Gavin is right.

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