As the teachers’ strike drags on, one sometimes wonders if things would be settled more easily if bargaining again took place at the local school district level.
There certainly would not be the bitterness and rancour that exists today. The striking teachers seem almost as angry at the provincial government as they were in early June, when they voted to go on strike. It is worth noting that more than 33,000 teachers took part in the strike vote – a huge turnout of B.C. Teachers Federation (BCTF) members.
Provincewide bargaining was brought in by the NDP government in the early 1990s under Education Minister Art Charbonneau. Until that time, districts made agreements with local teachers’ associations – usually on an annual basis. Each agreement was slightly different, but the wage increases were generally quite uniform across the province.
The longstanding practice was that a teachers’ association would usually try and conclude an agreement with a union-friendly board first. New Westminster was often a favourite, as it almost always was dominated by pro-labour and pro-teacher trustees. Once that settlement was reached, other districts were pressured to sign similar agreements – and they almost always did. The relationships in Surrey between the Surrey Teachers Association and the school district, which often had a majority of trustees who were slightly right-leaning, was usually harmonious when it came to the contract.
Teachers did not have the ability to strike at that time. Chances are, they would have been unlikely to use it.
The similarity of contracts was a key reason the province changed the bargaining system. It cost a lot to conclude individual agreements that were quite similar.
Premier Mike Harcourt asked Charbonneau was to find ways to reduce education cost duplications. Bringing in provincewide bargaining was one of them. Smaller school districts were also merged into larger ones, reducing the number to 60 from 75.
Later on, under NDP Premier Glen Clark, the BCTF and the province concluded an agreement that sowed the seeds of the mistrust that exists today. Clark wanted a wage freeze – and he got it by agreeing to a contract that imposed hard and fast class size limits. This was imposed over the objections of most districts, which feared it would be very hard to manage individual classrooms under such a contract.
When the BC Liberals came into power in 2001, they (under Education Minister Christy Clark) arbitrarily removed that part of the contract dealing with class size limits. That action has been ruled against in two lawsuits initiated by the BCTF. The union wants the government to agree to some form of class size limits, and pay a financial penalty for its actions in 2002. The government, which is appealing the latest court ruling, says that can’t be on the table while the court case proceeds.
There has long been bad blood between the BCTF and the government of the day. But the current fight with the BC Liberals is much more deep-rooted than earlier battles. That’s why the strike is likely to last until September.
The province has taken control of many institutions that once had much more ability to make decisions locally – hospitals, transit (outside the Lower Mainland) and schools. However, when such tight provincial control leads to so much upheaval for so many people, it must be questioned.