As Rossland students prepare to head back to class this fall there are more unknowns than knowns at this point in the contract negotiations between teachers and the province, the region’s teacher’s union president said.
Like a chess game, the maneuvering has begun by the province to set the table for when negotiations could begin later this month, said Andy Davidoff.
But, unlike a chess game, the province has not laid out the rules for bargaining, pre-empting local negotiations between the Kootenay Columbia Teacher’s Union and the board of School District 20.
Davidoff said the provincial and local negotiations should continue back up in September. Maybe. The government earlier in summer appointed a public administrator to replace school trustees on the board of their provincial bargaining agency the B.C. Public School Employers’ Association (BCPSEA).
That move, after gaining some ground locally and provincially earlier this year, has cast a shroud of doubt over the contract renewal process.
“We don’t know where we stand, whether we will be allowed to negotiate local issues or not … beyond the fact the government, through the minister of education, wants to be hands on with negotiations and appears to be pursuing its stated mandate of a long term agreement,” said Davidoff.
“I don’t know what game this is, it’s negotiating by dictate. The government sets the rules, and changes them at will.”
The move is to meet a demand of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation to bargain directly with the B.C. government, Education Minister Peter Fassbender said.
Local negotiations with local school boards can take place on any matters not related to money, with salaries, benefits and leaves under the purview of the province.
So while Rossland students prepare to play musical chairs with school buildings, considering there is still bad blood left over from last year’s teachers’ union job action, the threat of further job action this year is a possibility.
Although School District 20 chair Darrell Ganzert said the “bad blood” goes back almost 15 years between teachers and the province, he was not entertaining a return to the strife people felt under the tenure of previous job action.
“We are planning for a professionally rewarding year for teachers,” said Ganzert.
“I have my fingers crossed we don’t get that far,” echoed SD20 trustee Mark Wilson. “I’m hoping we don’t have a labour dispute in September.”
But the teachers are resistant to the 10-year contract the new provincial government is touting.
Outgoing BCTF president Susan Lambert said recently teachers needed to send a strong message to government that teachers will not accept a 10-year scheme to lock in another decade of deteriorating condition.
A ballot to deliver a mandate to the BCTF to reject the province’s proposal was sent out late last month, reading, “Do you support our bargaining team and their efforts to achieve a negotiated settlement, and oppose any government interference in the bargaining process? Yes or No.”
The teachers have never said no to the agreement, they just need to see terms before they can respond, said Davidoff.
The vote signals a reversal of the BCTF position on bargaining. In a submission to the government in December 2012, the union called for “provincial bargaining between the BCTF and government regarding salary, benefits, hours of work, paid leaves, class size, class composition, and staffing levels for specialist teachers,” and “local bargaining of all other items.”
Education Minister Peter Fassbender asked for a “pause” in bargaining last week to appoint a direct government negotiator for province-wide issues with a goal of reaching a 10-year deal.
With the current two-year agreement having expired June 30, negotiators for the BCTF and the B.C. Public School Employers’ Association, representing school districts, have been ongoing since February.
A BCTF spokesman said the government request for a “pause” has been withdrawn, and talks continued Wednesday with BCTF and BCPSEA representatives.
A two-year contract extension and wage freeze imposed by the government on teachers expired at the end of June. Jim Iker, who took over this spring as BCTF president, told CKNW radio his union isn’t opposed to a long-term settlement, as long as more resources are there to improve classroom conditions.
— with files from Tom Fletcher