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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 17, Number 4, January/February 2005

Wright got it wrong

by Ken Novakowski

Don Wright, the government appointed one-person commission reviewing teacher bargaining structures, spent the better part of a year doing that review, and in the end, he got it wrong. Why?

Wright had two options with respect to his recommendations. He could see collective bargaining as a process in which a level playing field is essential to successful outcomes, a process in which parties (the employer and employees) come to a table as equals and can resolve differences because they are equals. Or he could view collective bargaining as a process in which one party comes to the table (government, which ultimately makes all the rules anyway) and maintains its control over bargaining outcomes, one way or another. Unfortunately Wright chose the latter. In doing so, he ignored over 30 years of teacher-collective-bargaining history and committed the next generation of teachers to a potentially career-long struggle for equality and fairness at the bargaining table.

Two fundamental rights of employees are integral to a full, free collective bargaining system: the right to negotiate all terms and conditions of employment and the right to withdraw services in order to resolve a dispute at the bargaining table. The current government took both rights away from teachers, and Wright chose to accept the "new order" as a given in his recommendations. In doing so, he ignored the rulings of the International Labour Organization of the United Nations against the Liberal government’s legislation limiting the teachers’ right to strike, and he re-established a framework for resolving teacher working conditions that existed over 15 years ago in pre-collective-bargaining days. We used to call that system collective begging, and for good reason.

History has shown us that teachers will not live with a bargaining system such as the one proposed by Don Wright. Beginning in the 1960s and into the 1970s, teachers, through the B.C. Teachers’ Federation, engaged in campaign after campaign to reduce class sizes and to improve teachers’ working conditions and students’ learning conditions. But no amount of policy discussion with school boards or brief submissions to government got results that would provide teachers a significant say in determining their working conditions. It took collective action by teachers to achieve that.

In 1967, following a BCTF commission on intolerable learning conditions, the Federation launched an under-40 campaign, declaring that any teacher with 40 or more pupils in her or his class would get full financial and legal support from the Federation if she or he refused to teach the class. That action took matters a step forward, but an even more significant event leading to reduced class sizes happened seven years later. On February 15, 1974, Surrey teachers walked off the job and travelled to Victoria to protest large class sizes and demand increased provincial resources for public schools. It was a spontaneous act decided at a well-attended general meeting the day before and overwhelmingly supported by the members of the Surrey Teachers’ Association. That action was the stimulus for an agreement between the BCTF and the Dave Barrett NDP government of the day to implement a staged class-size reduction over a number of years. The agreement committed government to provide additional funding to reduce the pupil/teacher ratio (PTR) and class sizes, resulting in the hiring of thousands of teachers. In 1972–73, the PTR was 22.68, and by 1981–82, it had dropped to 16.70. The collective and united action of teachers had brought results.

But those results had not been enshrined in a collective agreement, and the restraint period that began in 1982–83 brought about funding cutbacks that increased class sizes and reduced the number of teachers. Up to that time, we had never had to deal with teacher reductions; the public school system was always growing, and the demand for teachers was high. Because we did not have the right to bargain all matters related to our employment, we had no seniority provisions, no means of determining a fair layoff procedure. And when the government introduced a package of 26 bills into the legislature on July 7, 1983, attacking labour, civil, and human rights on a broad front, the BCTF responded by helping to organize Operation Solidarity, a common front of trade unions. As part of a wider labour action, teachers across B.C. withdrew their services for three days in November 1983 trying to get the government of the day to back off from its legislative assault and, in the case of teachers, to provide us the legal basis for negotiating seniority and layoff procedures in our agreements with school boards. From that point forward. B.C. teachers saw the connection between bargaining and the right to strike. They realized that pressure on the employer or government to come to an agreement can be effective when we act collectively by withdrawing our services. The threat of withdrawal of services comes with the right to strike, whether or not the right is exercised. Without our right to strike, the employer need not take teachers seriously, and it usually doesn’t. The right to strike makes collective bargaining work.

Our collective and united actions led to legislation four years later that gave teachers full bargaining rights: the right to bargain all terms and conditions of employment with the right to strike. When the current Liberal government legislated education as an "essential service" and made it illegal to negotiate class-size and composition into our collective agreement, it was setting the clock back a whole generation. Don Wright had the opportunity to recommend a system that would have given teachers some hope. Instead, he recommended a system that offers no solutions to the problems teachers raised in our discussions with him and, in fact, final offer arbitration proposes a system much worse than what we had before 1987.

People in government and our partner groups constantly talk about the respect they have for teachers. I look forward to the day when "respect" will translate into a recognition of and support for some basic rights for teachers, starting with collective-bargaining rights. Don Wright could have led the way. By choosing not to, he makes it clear to teachers that if we want collective-bargaining rights, we will have to find other means to achieve them. Maybe the upcoming provincial election will give us an opportunity to begin to do that.

Ken Novakowski is the BCTF’s executive director.

The Wright Report: A summary

What’s included?

  1. Two-tier bargaining with additional items for negotiation at the local level, e.g., leaves, discipline and dismissal for misconduct, evaluation, layoff and recall, post and fill.
  2. Policy discussions with government to deal with class size, class composition, and staffing levels.
  3. Final offer arbitration of unresolved items following a phased bargaining process.
  4. Creation of a single common provincial agreement by March 31, 2006.
  5. Alternate year expiry dates for local and provincial agreements.

What’s not included?

  1. Right to negotiate all terms and conditions of employment, i.e., class size, class composition, staffing levels.
  2. Right to strike/lockout.
  3. More publicly accountable employer bargaining agent.

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