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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 18, Number 6, April 2006

Back to the future

Local negotiations: It's a real bargain

by Lynne Sinclair

For almost a century, locals bargained the terms and conditions of employment for members with their respective school boards. The first teacher strike in what was then the British Empire occurred in Victoria in 1919 when those teachers walked out in defence of better salaries. Since that time, locals have bargained salaries, benefits, preparation time, maternity leave, class-size limits, and class-composition support, to name but a few. Face-to-face negotiations with the employer resulted in agreements that met the needs of students, school boards, and teachers alike.

In 1994, the government imposed provincial bargaining on teachers, over our strong objections. Since that time, there has not been a negotiated settlement between the parties—the system has failed. The Federation has remained steadfast in its support for local bargaining. Recently, we submitted to Commissioner Vince Ready our position on a new bargaining structure. It urges him to return to a local bargaining structure. (It can be accessed at bctf.ca.)

Are we just incapable of change or are there real reasons for our positions? Why do we want to go "back to the future?"

Our submission to Ready begins with this premise:

"When collective bargaining is functioning well, it is based upon a process to which both parties (employers and employees) have agreed. It is a system where both parties have a vested interest in the outcome. A well functioning system includes the ability to bargain all matters that impact the workplace. Good collective bargaining occurs where the parties themselves sign the agreement, with or without assistance from third parties or resorting to job action. A good collective bargaining system produces a relationship where the parties are prepared to live with and work under the agreement that is reached. When both parties feel that the process is fair and equally weighted, they are motivated to reach an agreement and to live with it.

The conditions required for a successful collective bargaining system are:

  1. face-to-face negotiations between the actual parties.
  2. full-scope collective bargaining.
  3. the right to full strike and lockout.
  4. adequate government funding.
  5. no government interference in the process."

There are several key reasons for our support of local bargaining. Firstly, one size does not fit all when it comes to negotiations. The language that was agreed to around the province under local bargaining differs to accommodate unique circumstances, cultural differences, and other distinct needs or priorities. Provincial bargaining is incapable of addressing those needs on a case-by-case basis. If, for example, the teachers in Stikine need to address isolation and teacherage issues, how likely is it that the Vancouver teachers would support them if they became strike issues? How do those issues get addressed when province wide the teachers have pressing issues such as class size and salary? They don’t.

This last point relates directly to best outcomes. Why do we bargain? We bargain because we want to make improvements for ourselves and our students. In our experience, the best outcomes were achieved when locals had autonomy in negotiating directly with their employer, when locals and their members had the autonomy to determine their own priorities, and when locals and their members were free to choose their course of action, up to and including strike. History proves this. Three rounds of full, local bargaining resulted in class-size limits, class composition, staffing ratios, preparation time, hours of work, salaries and benefits that kept pace, post and fill language, and the list goes on. Four rounds of provincial bargaining have resulted in no negotiated agreements, stripped agreements, stripped rights, and constant government interference. Our submission to Ready makes an additional point: "The fact that most of the language in the provincial collective agreement remains that which was bargained locally over ten years ago is instructive of the value and effectiveness of local, face-to-face bargaining."

Another reason we support local bargaining is that the structure allows locals to bargain directly with their employers—real ownership is created. Both parties have a better understanding of the deal reached and a stronger commitment to upholding it. Our submission to Ready states:

"Trustees are elected by the public of the school district. They are accountable to that public and they are accessible to the parents and general public. The terms and conditions in a teacher collective agreement are integrally linked to the learning conditions of students. It makes no sense for those terms to be determined by people outside of the system and outside of the political, social, and cultural sphere of the district. It is the trustees who are responsible legally to ensure salary and benefit payment, to ensure the health and safety of workers, to ensure an harassment-free workplace, to deal with discipline and personnel issues, to hire new employees, and to deal with a host of other issues as they arise. It makes sense for them to be a full partner in determining the rules and processes of their responsibilities.

"Similarly, teachers in a school district are part of the social fabric and understand the needs of that district. They are much more able to address those needs in the context of local bargaining than would be a provincial union at a provincial table. That is what happened during local bargaining and that is why it worked so well. That is why the local language in the provincial agreement has not changed for over a decade—it requires an understanding and willingness of two parties who understand and appreciate the specific context of a district and its employees."

With BCPSEA, the provincial school board bargaining agent, no such relationship exists. Firstly, no bargain has ever been reached between the parties. Secondly, BCPSEA is completely distant from the everyday life of teachers and school boards—it is impervious to the impact of decisions at the negotiating table. While that may also be true of the Federation, BCPSEA is also an arm of government and its centre of gravity is more toward being a loyal agent than a representative of school boards. The Federation, on the other hand, is a democratic union that is built upon member involvement. Provincial bargaining is not a good match.

What does this mean to teachers? It means that many grievances over the interpretation and application of the collective agreement are filed and linger in lengthy processes, being opposed and obfuscated at every turn by BCPSEA. For example, we won three separate arbitrations on layoff and recall, only to have BCPSEA continue to advise school boards to ignore those decisions. Recently, BCPSEA continues to claim victory over our freedom of expression rights, in spite of the highest court in this country upholding our rights. As an organization, it is non-responsive to labour relations and common sense.

Membership involvement is key to the BCTF and it is an imperative in successful collective bargaining. Local bargaining encourages and sustains a much higher degree of member involvement by allowing face-to-face opportunities to meet with their local team, to raise bargaining objectives directly with the leaders, and to influence the overall strategy. Provincial bargaining makes that process necessarily more distant.

Local bargaining also involves the public because school boards cannot hide; they have to act as the other party to the bargain. Provincial bargaining has allowed school boards to pretend that they have nothing to do with the issues in dispute! It has also paved the way for the government to plan for the elimination of locally elected school boards. Our real political influence is at the local level—teachers talking to parents and to trustees. Parents are also empowered to influence bargaining outcomes when the negotiations occur in the local district.

Local bargaining fosters that communication and relationship. During the course of our three short rounds of full, free local collective bargaining (1988–1994) we were responsible for contributing millions of additional dollars to the system by ensuring that an informed public pressured school boards during our bargaining to agree to class-size limits, staffing ratios, and salary increases.

Lastly, teachers know from our experience last fall that the right to strike is critical to our successes not just in bargaining but beyond. If the right to strike pertains to a local, there is a greater ability for that local to exercise the right (it takes a majority of the members in a local as opposed to the entire Federation) and it is more likely that government interference will not occur due to the smaller scale of the strike. It is also far less likely that a strike will occur for many of the reasons already stated in support of local bargaining and because the employer will be much more responsive to the threat of a strike. A school board is much more likely to bargain under pressure. BCPSEA, on the other hand, has simply sat back and waited for the government to legislate.

Teachers will not wait for a fair collective agreement and students cannot afford to wait for firm class size limits and class composition support. It is clear that we must go back to our future: to full, free local bargaining. After all, it’s a real bargain.

Lynne Sinclair is director of the BCTF’s Field Service Division.

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