By Kate Irwin
The valley’s teaching staff will head back to school this fall with a new contract in place, but have little to show for their union’s year-long tussle with the province over working conditions.
On Friday, June 29th, teachers across British Columbia voted to accept a new two-year contract, retroactive to last summer. But the hard-won package the B.C. Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) has negotiated leaves teachers empty handed save some improved benefits and seniority provisions.
“[The provincial government] made it clear that if we didn’t sign they’d force a contract onto us through legislation,” said Doug Murray, President of the Windermere Teachers’ Association. “We really didn’t have any choice. A mediator was put in place and, in my opinion, forced a contract on us.”
British Columbia’s 41,000 public school teachers have gone 12 months without a contract in place, spending their school year engaged in an often acrimonious dispute with the government and the BC Public School Employers’ Association.
Teachers launched limited job action last September by withdrawing from some administrative tasks and voluntary duties, such as coaching sports teams and helping with graduation ceremonies.
The job action escalated to a three-day walkout in March, which saw Columbia Valley teachers marching with placards through downtown Invermere before a demonstration at Cenotaph Park.
The government responded to the province-wide strikes with new back-to-work legislation (Bill 22), preventing teachers from walking off the job or staging any further job action, and sent the negotiations to mediation.
“The mediation led by Dr. Jago resulted in a negotiated contract; this is much preferable to a legislated contract because it involves the agreement of both parties, and sets a much more positive tone going into 2012-13,” said Paul Carriere, superintendent of schools for School District #6.
But Bill 22 is now being challenged in court by the Teachers’ Federation, which claims it’s unconstitutional and merely rehashes legislation that the B.C. Supreme Court already declared invalid in 2011.
“Because this government has completely failed to deal with the repercussions of last year’s [Supreme Court] ruling, we have to go back to court,” said BCTF President Susan Lambert. “Given the ruling, we believed that we had regained the right to bargain class size, class composition, and the provision of services by specialist teachers, and thereby drive much-needed funding back into our public school system.”
The teachers’ new contract contains none of the improvements to working conditions sought, no reductions in class size, and no 15 per cent wage increase over three years — a key item on the BCTF’s original list of demands.
The legislation within Bill 22 requires any deal brokered to comply with the government’s no-wage-increase policy. The province’s teachers will instead receive $2.63 million in health benefits, a drop in the ocean compared to the $2 billion salary increase sought.
In contrast, their previous five-year contract, signed in 2006, offered a juicy 16 per cent wage hike over its term, plus a $3,700 signing bonus for teachers.
While class size affects the Columbia Valley less than school districts in the Lower Mainland, Mr. Murray said, the issues of class composition and reductions in support staff, such as librarians and special education teachers, damage teachers’ working environment.
“It’s actually embarrassing how far we are behind other teachers in the country,” he said. “It’s hard to work when schools are so chronically underfunded … we’re already starting to lose teachers to other provinces and countries.”
With valley teachers heading back into the classroom in September with a new contract in place, a question mark still hangs over a possible return to extracurricular duties. The issue will be discussed and voted upon at a teachers conference in August, Mr. Murray said.