Teachers' soap opera drags on and on

The B.C. version of "The NeverEnding Story" has resumed playing, and it's not clear that it will ever actually stop.

I'm referring, of course, to the pseudo-comic soap opera that stars the B.C. Teachers' Federation and the B.C. Liberal government.

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I hammered the government in this space a few weeks back for its heavy-handed and inept attempts to arbitrarily strip language from the BCTF collective agreement. It has lost twice in court on that issue, but it's still fighting, likely all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.

The government needs to quit scheming to outfox the BCTF and get down to real negotiations that will inevitably involve a significant increase in funding for the kindergarten-to-Grade 12 education system to address important issues such as class composition (often involving children designated with special needs).

But just when things were looking up for the BCTF, leave it to the union to again engage in some puzzling  behaviour. After the government made an opening offer in its round of negotiations for a new contract with the BCTF, the union opted to abruptly announce it will hold a strike vote without presenting its own detailed counter-offer.

Now, strike votes are a perfectly legitimate and well-used part of labour relations strategy. But holding one before any actual detailed negotiations occur seems odd, to say the least.

The BCTF leadership has taken pains to say that even armed with a strong strike vote mandate, the union will not take job action that has any negative impact on the classroom and students. This leaves one to wonder how, then, a strike vote puts any kind of pressure on the government at the negotiating table.

The sudden emphasis on holding a strike vote may be designed to deflect attention from an issue that the BCTF is vulnerable on. That would be its pitch for a wage increase, which in past contract talks seemed to have come from a different planet.

For example, there was the 34 per cent hike the BCTF asked for back in 2001, within days of the 9/11 attacks. There was a $2 billion package presented a few years ago, which included lengthy paid leave provisions for the death of a friend (but not a Facebook friend, as the joke went at the time).

The government's chief negotiator, Peter Cameron, says the union has dropped hints in negotiations that an "extreme" wage demand lurks in the future. BCTF president Jim Iker says his team has presented a salary "provision" without any actual numbers contained in it (huh?).

The BCTF says the government's opening offer of 6.5 per cent over five years is "unreasonable, unfair and provocative" even though other public sector unions seem fine with those kinds of numbers, having settled their own contracts recently.

Given the BCTF's oft-quoted demand that its members be paid at a level equal to the top paid teachers in other provinces, I'm betting the union's wage demand will be in the double-digits, and if it is it will be seen as coming from la-la land.

But wage increases and bizarre strike votes aside, the BCTF does hold the higher ground on the more serious issues of class size and class composition.

The courts have ruled repeatedly in its favour, although the courts have also noted these issues are the subject of negotiations with the government.

The B.C. Liberals have presented counterarguments that even with current class size and composition averages, the graduation rates for all kinds of categories of students - including aboriginal and special needs - have increased considerably in the last decade.

The government keeps referring to "average" class size and special needs numbers that seem relatively low, but they mask the fact that there can be many, many instances where the numbers are well above the average.

It is the teachers in those situations that I hear from the most, who describe such things as trying to teach chaotic Grade 4 classes with 30 nine-year-olds, many of them with serious but undiagnosed behaviour problems.

Or  an apprenticeship Math 10 class where half of the 29 students have an "individual education plan" because of behaviour or psychological issues. Or shop classes, where too many kids are working on dangerous or ancient equipment.

Unfortunately, "The NeverEnding Story" does little to help them. The soap opera will just play on and on, with the two key players fumbling their way along, with no resolution in sight.

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global B.C.

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