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Arbitration unlikely path to end teachers strike

More than 500 Nelson residents marched down Tuesday as part of the Parents Etc. for Public Education March on what was supposed to be the first day of public school classes. - Will Johnson / Black Press
More than 500 Nelson residents marched down Tuesday as part of the Parents Etc. for Public Education March on what was supposed to be the first day of public school classes.
— image credit: Will Johnson / Black Press

Provincial government negotiator Peter Cameron is panning the idea of binding arbitration to settle the B.C. teachers strike.

The idea, advanced by Vancouver school board chair Patti Bacchus, comes after a failed attempt over the weekend by veteran mediator Vince Ready to find common ground.

Cameron noted the government – which has already warned the teachers' demands threaten to blow a massive hole in the provincial budget – would be empowering one person to force through a final decision that might be extremely costly.

"It doesn't seem to be a good solution from our perspective," he said.

Nor, he said, is it the optimum way to reach a result best for students in classrooms or that the two sides can live with.

"The parties end up not really having made the hard decisions and owning the outcome," Cameron said of arbitration. "And it involves a third party, who would likely be a labour relations person rather than an educator, making educational decisions."

B.C. Teachers Federation vice-president Glen Hansman said the union "might be open" to arbitration but doesn't expect any interest from the province.

Instead, he suggested a deal could be within reach if the province sweetened its offer for a $75-million Learning Improvement Fund to assist with special needs and drops its demand for an "escape clause" allowing either side to set aside a future appeal court decision it dislikes on class composition.

"The education minister is saying wait for the court case," Hansman said. "We agree – we would be open to something interim and whatever the court decides we'll live with it."

Cameron argues there's nothing wrong with negotiating a deal now on class size and composition and says that's what in line with last January's B.C. Supreme Court ruling against the government.

The ruling of Justice Susan Griffith stated in part that there was no guarantee language restored in the old contract would be "clad in stone, as it can and likely will need to be the subject of ongoing collective bargaining."

Cameron argues the union now seems to not wish to bargain classroom conditions after winning the right to do exactly that.

"It's the union that's refusing to bargain a provision into the new agreement addressing class size and composition," he said. "They want a vacant spot left for that in the hopes they get the old language back into the collective agreement and that it would carry forward."

While the government has accused the union of demanding twice as much as other public sector unions when wages and benefits are counted together, Hansman said the province considers items such as preparation time for teachers to deal with special needs students to be benefits.

"The government definition of benefits is everything other than salary," he said. "The term is being used quite broadly."

Hansman said the union has carved $125 million from its demand for a fund to settle grievances and dropped some extended health benefit demands – such as demands for $30,000 in lifetime fertility treatments and prescribed massage or physiotherapy of up to $3,000 a year.

Also abandoned is a proposal  to remove the bottom step of the pay grid to improve pay for starting teachers, which Hansman described as an "agonizing" concession.

He also said the BCTF is open to looking at a shorter contract term if that gives the province more comfort.

Hansman said the union's demand for eight per cent in pay hikes over five years still wouldn't bring B.C. teachers to pay parity with any other province.

One big chunk of the union's ask is a $5,000 signing bonus, which the province estimates would cost at least $150 million, in addition to the extra $166 million it says the union seeks in higher wages and benefits.

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