Thursday, September 11, 2014

Why Binding Arbitration Would - and Should - End the BC Teachers’ Strike

BCTF President Jim Iker lets Jack Glover make his point at BC Federation of Labour rally last Friday! - Geoff Peters photo

And why the BC Liberal government is scared school-less of arbitration – hint: it’s not wages and benefits

Bill Tieleman’s 24 Hours Vancouver / The Tyee column

Tuesday September 9, 2014

By Bill Tieleman

"When will mankind be convinced and agree to settle their difficulties by arbitration?"
- Benjamin Franklin, writer, politician, inventor, 1706-1790
Don't believe the reasons Education Minister Peter Fassbender and Premier Christy Clark give for their rapid rejection of binding arbitration to settle the teachers' dispute. This is the game changer.
Dismiss their contention that the BC Teachers' Federation's demands for wages and benefits is the reason they can't go to binding arbitration. It isn't.
The BC Liberals do not fear arbitration could give teachers more than other public sector workers. They know it won't.
Any arbitrator will award teachers the same wage increases as other government workers -- 5.5 per cent over five years, plus some compensation for not receiving any wage increases for years when other employees received modest raises.
The government is scared school-less that the B.C. Supreme Court decision restoring class size and composition clauses -- illegally stripped from the BCTF contract by Clark and former premier Gordon Campbell back in 2002 -- will be upheld by the B.C. Court of Appeal and/or the Supreme Court of Canada.
The true reason the government rejected binding arbitration? It doesn't want to spend money on putting more resources into classrooms for students with special needs and reducing class size.

It's a harsh reality, but the evidence is clear. And if parents and others want kids back in school before November, they must loudly demand the government accept binding arbitration while letting justice take its course.
Wages aren't the problem
First, while wages and benefits are a major cost item, they are also budgeted. The government anticipated there would be a salary increase for teachers, and allocated that amount in this fiscal year and the following ones.
Second, hiring hundreds more teachers and putting more resources into classrooms is indeed expensive.
Third, despite this government going recklessly into deep debt -- from $33.8 billion in 2001, to $45 billion when Clark became premier in 2011, to $61 billion now -- it doesn't want to invest in education, only buildings, bridges and liquefied natural gas.
Those investments are worthy and help pay for public services, but in the long term we also need better-educated workers participating in all sectors of the economy to prosper.
Judging from some media and other commentary, the teachers' union has failed to convey the message that wages and benefits are not the problem by not removing some of those bargaining package items much earlier.
But that doesn't matter now, because an arbitrator can decide them.
In addition, claims by the B.C. government that it has been stung by arbitrated wage settlements in the past, primarily with doctors, are a red herring.
In that arbitration, doctors argued their compensation had fallen dramatically behind their counterparts in Alberta.
But in the teachers' dispute, where all other public sector provincial government workers have taken the same wage increase, an arbitrator will undoubtedly follow that pattern.
Arbitration has worked before
Teacher arbitration wouldn't break new ground in B.C., either. In 1993, the New Democrat government brought in legislation to end a local teachers' strike in the Vancouver School District through binding arbitration.
Then NDP Premier Mike Harcourt outlined the arguments succinctly in the B.C. Legislature:
"However, as well as the responsibility to facilitate the parties in free collective bargaining, the provincial government has another important responsibility: to assess when collective bargaining is in difficulty and the public interest is at risk.
"In recent days the government, through the Minister of Labour, has made significant efforts to assist the parties to the dispute in Vancouver in resolving their difficulties. A mediator was appointed by government.
"That mediator was then designated as a special mediator. There was a full and public release of the recommendations of the special mediator and, finally, an invitation to both the school board and teachers to agree to voluntary binding arbitration.
"The Minister of Labour, to his credit, has fulfilled his responsibilities by exhausting all of the possibilities that could lead the parties to an agreement.
"It became evident on Friday that bargaining in the Vancouver district was paralyzed and that our children were paying the price. Only through the actions of this government could I ensure that the children in Vancouver would be back in school tomorrow.
"This bill takes clear action to end the dispute in Vancouver and get those students back to school. It also ensures the expeditious resolution of the other outstanding disputes."
Today's BC Liberal government still has two viable choices: negotiate a deal on class size and compensation as well as all other issues, or let binding arbitration and the courts decide.
But so far it has proven unwilling to go either way, preferring a lengthy strike that might end with a legislatively imposed contract rejected by teachers.
That would likely mean an illegal strike, more court confrontation, additional classroom disruption and abysmal morale for teachers and students.

Surely neutral third party arbitration and the justice system are a better alternative?


Sunday, September 07, 2014

BC Teachers' Strike Reality Check Needed as Mediator Vince Ready Walks Out

Teachers and supporters gathered at BC Federation of Labour rally for BC Teachers' Federation Friday September 5 - Shirley Ross photo
Valuable life lessons to be learned by students in ongoing dispute.

Bill Tieleman’s 24 Hours Vancouver / The Tyee column

Tuesday September 2, 2014

By Bill Tieleman

"School's out for summer/ School's out forever / School's been blown to pieces"
- Alice Cooper, "School's Out"
There will be no public school classes today in British Columbia, nor quite likely for weeks, after veteran mediator Vince Ready walked out of negotiations, saying teachers and the provincial government were too far apart.
So it's time for a reality check.
First, the sky will not fall. Everybody take a valium.
Students will not be scarred for life in learning that the peaceful resolution of strong differences among adults is inconvenient and expensive in a democracy. In fact, it's a valuable life lesson.
Alternative ways of dispute resolution are now on display by Russian tanks and troops in eastern Ukraine, where the rule of force trumps the rule of law and respect for international borders.
Second, teachers are not "strike happy."
They are going without wages and strike pay, suffering financially because most believe it's the right thing to do, whether you agree or not.
Teachers also know they will never make up $5,000 and counting in lost wages.
The BC Teachers' Federation is not holding kids "hostage."
 True hostages are the 300 schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram terrorists in Nigeria -- respect the word.
Students and parents are also not "caught in the middle" of this dispute; they are part of this dispute because parents are taxpayers and voters and their children will become both.
As such, parents have an important role in telling the government how they feel about its position, loudly. Students and non-parents have that responsibility too.
Class size and composition -- the number of special needs kids in classrooms and what resources they get to help learn -- are critical to the whole province. It's our future at stake, and a generation of students already had fewer resources than they were supposed to.
This government's record
Premier Christy Clark is well aware that governments rise and fall on voters' judgment about how they deal with critical issues like education, health care and the economy.
Political leaders who ignore or reject public opinion don't survive long. Just ask former B.C. premier Gordon Campbell, ex-Alberta premier Alison Redford or ex-Quebec premier Pauline Marois.
The BC Liberal government -- to its credit, so far -- has rejected imposing a legislated contract.
To do so goes against labour principles and international agreements, which state that free collective bargaining means reaching a negotiated contract, even through the use of a legal strike or lockout to put pressure on both sides.
But sadly, this government has been repeatedly cited for violating basic union rights and has lost in Canadian courts against teachers, hospital workers and other unions.
The B.C. Supreme Court has twice ruled that the government broke the law by stripping provisions for reduced class size and composition from the teachers' contract in the past and of attempting to provoke a full-scale strike for political advantage.
It has every right to appeal those decisions, but unless and until that verdict is reversed, it remains exceedingly guilty.
Clark should be worried about not learning her lesson.
Kids will be all right
The BC Liberals also fired the BC Public School Employers' Association board of directors, removing elected school trustees' involvement, and replaced it with only one government appointed administrator.
That came after BCPSEA and the teachers' union had agreed on new approaches to bargaining and seemed to be making progress. Now we have a full-scale, indefinite strike.
Education Minister Peter Fassbender broke a media blackout agreed to by both sides, and despite his vigorous rejection of that obvious conclusion it jeopardized talks at a critical moment.
The government has proposed contract clauses that would say, according to the union, "that if either party didn't like the outcome of the court decision, notice could be served to unilaterally terminate the collective agreement" and also allow government to override a future court decision.

Who would give up their right to go to court against a government with a record of illegally breaking its word and ripping up contracts?
But ultimately the strike will end, teachers and students will go back to classrooms and the kids will be all right.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

By Deliberately Breaking Media Blackout Agreement, Education Minister Peter Fassbender Hurt Chances to Get a Deal

"Media blackout? What media blackout?"  Peter Fassbender at the microphones - 24 Hours photo
Fassbender's media tour jeopardizes negotiations at a critical juncture.

Bill Tieleman’s 24 Hours Vancouver / The Tyee column

Tuesday August 26, 2014

By Bill Tieleman

It's good to shut up sometimes."
- French mime Marcel Marceau, 1923-2007
Education Minister Peter Fassbender knows his reading, writing and arithmetic.
And Fassbender knows that last week he flagrantly broke an agreement by both sides in the teachers' strike to observe a media blackout so bargaining would take place at the negotiating table, not via press release.
What Fassbender may not know or care about is that he has seriously hurt the chances of B.C. students getting back to classes on Sept. 2 by jeopardizing negotiations at a critical juncture, with veteran mediator Vince Ready finally considering joining the talks.
Fassbender is not only education minister; he is also a trained professional communicator, an ex-senior executive at DDB Canada (formerly Palmer Jarvis), one of the country's biggest marketing and communications firms.
Then there is this crystal clear joint statement issued Aug. 14 by the BC Teachers' Federation and the BC Public School Employers' Association: "The parties agreed that they will not engage in public discussion pending further discussions with Mr. Ready."
But there he was Thursday making the rounds with multiple media outlets, talking not only about bargaining issues but actually provoking the BCTF and launching a new $350,000 website that furthers the government's bargaining position.
Before that, Fassbender was criticizing BCTF leaders for attending a membership meeting in Kamloops, saying they should be at the table even though no talks were scheduled.
What 'blackout' means
Let's completely rule out the possibility that Fassbender made an inadvertent mistake in violating the media blackout.
Furthermore -- and I say this as a communications consultant working with unions and a former B.C. Federation of Labour communications director -- nobody in labour relations misunderstands the meaning of the words "media blackout."
For example, here's what the University of New Brunswick posted about a media blackout during negotiations there earlier this year:
"This blackout includes communications via traditional and social media channels and e-communications including this website. We will continue to work toward providing answers to submitted questions and reply once the blackout is lifted," UNB's administration wrote.
The BC Liberal government approach also damaged the fragile relationship between BCTF president Jim Iker and Fassbender-appointed BCPSEA negotiator Peter Cameron just when establishing some trust is most needed.
Cameron, a veteran at bargaining from both the employer and union side of the table, has been put in a terrible position because now Iker must doubt his ability to deliver on what he says in talks -- a critical element in reaching agreement. And both sides acknowledge that the two chief negotiators have been talking privately.
If Cameron's bosses don't honour his word, why would the BCTF believe him, no matter how sincere?
Intentional tactic
But the smartest people in Christy Clark's office think they know better than those with decades of experience.
Only a professional communicator like Fassbender could keep a straight face while delivering lines like this to CKNW's Michael Smyth on Thursday: "I am absolutely respecting the media blackout on details of negotiations."
Fassbender's excuse -- that he has an obligation as minister to talk to media despite the blackout in order to inform parents -- is misleading in the extreme, because Fassbender is the employer spokesperson, the guy who Cameron reports to.
Nothing Fassbender said Friday was new. The government's positions on all issues, including the crazy "pay the parents $40 a day" for kids not going to school scheme, have been public for weeks.
Make no mistake: Fassbender doing interviews wasn't his decision. It was clearly made in the office of Premier Christy Clark.
The premier and her advisors sent Fassbender out to break the media blackout with an intentional plan to either scuttle the talks or, more likely, further demoralize teachers who want to get back to their classrooms.
That dubious tactic will likely backfire, because now whatever happens in negotiations, parents will rightly see the government as having played chicken with their kids' education.
Risking the strike continuing into mid-October is more evidence that the government's real target is teachers and their union, not reaching a negotiated agreement so school starts on time.
It's a no class approach.