Government rejects binding arbitration in teachers dispute

The government has rejected the B.C. Teachers’ Federation’s call for binding arbitration.

The BCTF asked the government to agree to binding arbitration in the dispute that has delayed the start of the school year and caused students to miss 18 days of school, so far.

The B.C. Public School Employers’ Association’s chief negotiator Peter Cameron said Saturday that he had met with mediator Vince Ready, who continues to monitor the situation, and BCTF president Jim Iker to discuss the proposal.

“After the dust settled and I had a serious look, it became very clear that this wasn’t a serious proposal,” Cameron said.

In a letter to Fassbender, Cameron outlined several reasons for rejecting the call for binding arbitration. They include the requirement to drop the employers’ proposal on class size and class composition (E80), the fact that preparation time is not considered by the union to be part of wages and benefits, a Public Sector Employers’ Council policy prohibiting BCPSEA from giving a third party the authority to bind employers to a settlement that could be outside the PSEC wage and benefit mandate, and that Iker “made it clear that he wasn’t interested in the consideration of any fiscal parameters.”

Iker said in response that the offer to enter arbitration or mediation would remain open. He said the only precondition is that proposal E80, which he called the government’s attempt to undo their court losses, be dropped.

“It is a fair, workable, and pragmatic plan to end the strike, open schools, and get children back into classrooms,” Iker said. “Unfortunately, the government continues to put its own interests ahead of all others. B.C. teachers are willing to put our proposals to an independent third party for evaluation, but the government remains too entrenched to even consider this fair process.”

No further talks are scheduled, although Ready continues to monitor the situation. Cameron said the employer wants a negotiated settlement, but that the two sides are not close to a deal.

“I’m afraid I can’t give any optimism at this point,” Cameron said.

When asked if the employer is prepared to move in their position, Cameron would not give any specifics, but said “When the BCTF says you’re not moving, they’re right. The settlement ultimately is going to be in the pattern with everybody else.” He said the one area the government has indicated they are prepared to move on is class composition.

The teachers were offering to enter into binding arbitration, which means that a neutral third party settles the dispute and both sides agree to abide by the settlement, on wages, benefits and a signing bonus. They wanted to leave the determination of class size, class composition and specialist teacher ratios to a separately negotiated fund for now, pending the end of a court appeal to be heard in October. Iker said the employer needed to drop E80 — which is the employer’s proposal for class size, class composition and specialist teacher ratios — before the teachers will enter binding arbitration.

Minister of Education Peter Fassbender said he agreed with Cameron’s assessment of the offer.

“After due diligence and further investigation, it became very clear that it was another empty effort to give parents and teachers a false hope that there is a simple way to resolve the dispute,” Fassbender said in a statement. “At a meeting yesterday, the BCTF made it clear that they would insist on several preconditions – preconditions that would effectively tilt the entire process in the BCTF favour. Despite several efforts by Mr. Cameron, and more than a day later, BCPSEA still doesn’t have a written proposal from the BCTF.”

If the government had agreed, the teachers would have voted on ending their strike, and schools could be open sometime next week, Iker said Friday.

“It is the fastest and most fair option that will see schools open and kids back in classrooms,” Iker said Friday.

On Friday, Fassbender said the province is not prepared to raise taxes to settle the teachers’ dispute.

“Our balanced budget is critical to our future,” he said.

Entering binding arbitration is risky, but it would give both sides a way out of the dispute without legislation and would get schools reopened, said Ritu Mahil, a labour lawyer at Lawson Lundell and a past vice-chair of the Labour Relations Board.

“It’s a way out — it’s a potential resolution and it’s something that’s not an imposed contract on them,” Mahil said. “Historically there is labour unrest between the two parties and there is always this emotion that’s building up. Here, if one party is willing to live by those consequences, the other party should think long and hard before they say no.”

Wayne Ross, an education professor at UBC, said the BCTF’s call for binding arbitration shows its eagerness to get schools open.

“How government responds to the call for binding arbitration will be a measure of its true interest in opening the schools, as opposed to focusing on negotiating their way out of B.C. Supreme Court rulings instructing them to retroactively restore class size and composition language to teachers’ contracts and pay damages,” Ross said.

“If government doesn’t agree to leave matters related to class size and composition before the courts, then their cynical efforts to force teachers to essentially give up their Charter rights as well as what they have won in the courts become crystal clear.”

Fassbender reiterated Friday that the government is not legislating teachers back to work and that he wants a negotiated settlement.

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