Premier Christy Clark's ten-year contract proposal for B.C. teachers was greeted with skepticism by the man who faced the government's bargaining team in a prolonged effort to work out their latest settlement.
As chief negotiator for B.C. teachers in one of the most tumultuous rounds of bargaining in the history of the B.C. Teachers Federation, the union's first vice-president Jim Iker had a front-row seat in a heavyweight battle that lasted the entire 2011-12 school year. While he's optimistic the next round of talks will produce positive results, he's questioning the government's motives.
Two weeks ago, Education Minister Don McRae announced a plan to consult with key education stakeholders such as school trustees, school administrators and parent groups to find a way to improve teachers collective bargaining in B.C., which has a long rocky history marked by strikes and labour disruptions.
"We hope they've learned some lessons but they've had 10 years to do that and didn't apply any of those lessons to the last round," said Iker, who spoke to teachers in Prince George last weekend at the BCTF's North Central/Peace River zone meetings. "Now there's an election coming around [in May] and perhaps that was the motive for musing about a 10-year agreement and a re-look at our bargaining structures.
"I think the whole issue of the 10-year agreement [proposed by] the premier is amusing. They basically legislated a two-year agreement on us through Bill 22. We actually had proposed a longer-term agreement in trying to deal with the some of the issues that were important for our members, students and public education in general, knowing if there was a longer term of three or four years you're spreading out the costs of any improvements.
"Knowing the track record of this government in terms of the underfunding of public education, and the past imposition of contracts on us dating back to 2002 and 2005 and the imposed conditions on us in 2012, it's hard to take a proposal like that seriously."
Iker is a primary school teacher from Burns Lake who now works full-time at the BCTF office in Vancouver. The zone meeting at the Civic Centre attracted about 60 teachers from Fort Nelson, Fort St. John, Dawson Creek, Williams Lake, Quesnel, Mackenzie, McBride, Valemount, Vanderhoof, Fort St. James, Fraser Lake and Burns Lake.
The 2011-12 school year started with teachers withdrawing from supervisory duties from September to March, leading up to the introduction of the province's Bill 22 legislation, which prompted a three-day legal strike in March. The BCTF filed court actions to challenge Bill 22 provisions, which took away teachers' right to strike under the threat of heavy fines. The labour dispute also led to teachers withdrawing from extracurricular activities and the involvement of the B.C. Labour Relations Board.
"The process was very frustrating, knowing you're sitting across the table from an employer who didn't have the ability to actually negotiate a collective agreement with us that respected the work we did with students in the classroom," said Iker.
"We knew [the B.C. Public School Employers' Association] had their hands tied in terms of what the government mandate was and the fact the government wanted to strip our collective agreement and wanted major concessions from us."
After weeks of consultation with mediator Charles Jago, the 10-month job action ended when teachers around the province voted 75 per cent in favour of accepting a new contract. It brought modest gains in benefits to teachers but no wage increases and no improvements in class size and composition. The contract will expire on June 30, 2013.
The union continues to fight Bill 22 and has filed several court actions. The new law removed provisions on classroom composition which under the previous contract made it standard practice for teachers with more than three students with individual education plans (IEP) to receive additional instruction help from teaching assistants. The BCTF will also push for reductions on the upper limits of class sizes.
"The issues of class size and class composition and learning specialist ratios like teacher librarians and teacher counselors are very important for our members and for students and those were the items stripped out of our collective agreement in 2002 and also part of our huge [B.C. Supreme] court victory in April 2011," said Iker. "Parts of Bills 27 and 28 were considered unconstitutional and illegal and Justice Griffin gave them a year to deal with that, and they put them back into Bill 22."
Bargaining will resume by March 1 at the latest, at least four months before the current contract expires. The BCTF will outline its bargaining objectives in a bargaining conference in late November. After two years of net-zero wage increases, Iker said teachers want salary increases that will at least keep up to the rate of inflation and bring them closer to the level of their colleagues in other provinces. The BCTF will also try to negotiate more preparation time for teachers.