ANALYSIS: Transit dispute overshadows ongoing teachers’ contract battle, but for how long?

Vacant desks are pictured at the front of an empty classroom is pictured at McGee Secondary school in Vancouver on Sept. 5, 2014.
Vacant desks are pictured at the front of an empty classroom is pictured at McGee Secondary school in Vancouver on Sept. 5, 2014. The Canadian Press file

The escalating transit labour dispute in Metro Vancouver has pushed into the background another fight that has the potential of becoming equally problematic for the public.

That would be the unresolved contract fight between the BC Teachers Federation (BCTF) and the BC Public School Employers’ Association (BCPSEA), which represents school boards across the province.

If you are a parent with a child in the B.C. public school system, the recently released report by a labour mediator on the bargaining situation for teachers and their employers makes for very bleak reading.

READ MORE: B.C. teachers reject mediator’s recommendations for contract settlement with employer

The 60-page report by David Schaub is a concise analysis of the inherent problems in that bargaining process and as such, provides scant hope that any new contract can be negotiated without major intervention by a third party (most likely the provincial government).

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His recommended terms for settling the contract were swiftly rejected by the teachers’ union, so that part of the report is DOA for now (although I would not be surprised if they form the basis of any contract that may be imposed).

However, the rest of the report is illuminating.

B.C. teachers reject mediator’s recommended terms of settlement for new contract
B.C. teachers reject mediator’s recommended terms of settlement for new contract

Schaub charts the troubled history of contract talks between the BCTF and the provincial government agency that represents school board employers of teachers.

In doing so, however, he provided two clues that may explain why the teachers’ union has had so much trouble negotiating a successful contract pretty well every round of talks. (Since 1987, only one contract has been negotiated without third-party intervention or imposition from the provincial government.)

While he says he will not lay blame on who is most responsible for the ongoing paralysis, those two clues point clearly at the BCTF when it comes to who is most responsible.

READ MORE: B.C. teachers’ pay now at the heart of stalled contract negotiations

First, he made it clear the two sides in every dispute cannot even agree on the bargaining structure. Schaub said this is a “significant” point “with the BCTF attempting to refer issues to the local bargaining tables and BCPSEA (the employer agency) attempting to seek standardization of issues at the provincial table.

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In other words, the BCTF is still fighting the decision by the NDP government of the 1990s to end almost all local bargaining and to push pretty well all items for negotiation at the provincial table. The reason for this was that prior to that switch, BCTF locals were “whipsawing” school districts by forcing them to agree to contracts they could not fund.

Therefore, it appears the BCTF has continually refused to accept the full decision made by the NDP government in 1994 to change the structure of collective bargaining, to make it province-wide rather than locally focused. If it thought the current NDP government was interested in revisiting that decision, the union must be seriously disappointed.

Keith Baldrey on teachers negotiations
Keith Baldrey on teachers negotiations

This position has essentially hamstrung the pace of negotiations. In the 58 days of bargaining and the 18 days of mediation in this contract round, just three agenda items were resolved. That is both astonishing and ridiculous.

The second problem appears to be his suggestion that the BCTF thinks the entire K-12 education as set out by the government of the day should somehow be on the bargaining table. Schaub calls this a “major source of tension” and he appears to chide the union on this point.

“The focus of the K-12 parties should be on the success of the system and the standard of living of those employed in it,” he wrote, and then noted the government has to balance those considerations with much larger ones, such as the funding of health care, social services and transportation.

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In other words, he appears to say it is not appropriate to put the government’s education budget on the table, as if it can be changed somehow through negotiations. That is not how budgeting works: the finance minister tables the budget and the legislature votes on it (not a union and its employer).

READ MORE: B.C. teachers head back to class amid stalled contract negotiations

So Schaub has put his finger on two critical issues that, unfortunately, do not seem to be about to change for the better any time soon.

After weighing the entire situation, the mediator came to one major conclusion — and it is not likely to make parents very happy.

“It is evident there is a disconnect between the parties that will not allow them to reach a collective agreement,” he wrote.

Which means either a strike or government intervention — or both — are out there on the horizon.

And while the transit dispute affects only Metro Vancouver residents, a work stoppage in B.C. schools would be felt in every community in the province.

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC