Diary of a Mad Trustee Open Board Meeting August 31st 2011

Principiis Obsta…Finem Respice

  Resist the Beginning…Consider the End



 I do not want to engage in the usual patter about returning to the salt mines and how terrible it all is to be back in harness after a carefree summer of topless sunbathing and substance induced euphoria. Particularly since I can’t lay any claim to those pastimes.

We are back…school has started and we are in the middle of job action by the people we entrust our kids to for many hours a day. I suppose it is a very good time to reflect on why we have such faith in teachers, who has the best interests of kids in their heart of hearts and what the mentors of our children deserve in the way of conditions and wages.

For some of us,we are also stepping out into election campaign territory which has its rewards – the job of trustee is both a civic duty and a privilege though seeking to perform this duty has its own set of pressures.

Interestingly – our board has chosen to hire our own Secretary Treasurer and Assistant Secretary Treasurer to function as Chief Elections Officers with an accompanying bump in pay to compensate for their extra time of which I am assuming they have very little. I am bewildered at the optic of having employees of the school district who could hardly be less neutral in this matter placed in charge of the process of conducting the election of their own employers. No matter how diligent and honourable the specific people may be, it contributes to a sense of insecurity for those of us who are not on their Xmas list. It is just something I would have thought the board might have wished to sidestep in the interests of good sense. It is not as if it is saving us any money.

However, I will abide…the board has spoken.

I am so terminally annoyed at the media for their relentless incapacity for truth or balance I am tempted to either become a frequenter of call-in shows  or to just start walking around with a sandwich board wailing “The End is Nigh”.

 Clearly, these rather self serving attacks on our teachers and their defense organisation have nothing to do with caring for our educational needs or seeking a better way to provide learning- it is about transforming the profession of teaching into a service industry complete with clients and profit /loss statements.

This meeting it was clear we are as trustees seriously contemplating playing a mere spectator role in this dispute and as if that were not terrible enough we are planning to do it behind closed doors.

Therefore, I will provide my own lack of measure for which I have more tolerance obviously.

“My friends, it is solidarity of labour we want. We do not want to find fault with each other, but to solidify our forces and say to each other: “We must be together; our masters are joined together and we must do the same thing”. – Mother Jones

Why are teachers engaged in job action?

The short version is :after beginning the process of bargaining in March 2011 to observe the expiry of the contract in June 2011 and seeing little progress, the BCTF obtained a 90% strike vote (70 % of their members voted which is impressive) . The longer story is …. through the enactment of Bills 27 and 28, the class size and composition elements of their collective agreement were shorn out in 2002 and imposed despite the unions best efforts to seek very modest wage increases in favour of improved classroom conditions. This of course as we now know ended the BCTF’s ability to negotiate class size and composition, supports like teacher-librarians, counselors, learning assistance and other specialist teachers, the length of the school day, and hours of instruction in the school year. Minister of Education at that time, Christy Clark, and her band of vandals must have been laughing their asses off as they executed this outrage – even they would have had the sense to appreciate irony when they dealt it out.

Provincially, our classrooms have subsequently been robbed of at least 3 billion dollars. In the wake of the court decision in April 2011 which supported the teachers’ charter right not to suffer unilateral changes to their collective agreement, the BCTF is looking for the right to return to bargaining for their conditions of work again as well as a sensible pay rise. They are now back in court seeking some redress in the current round of bargaining which reflects the April ruling before wasting any more time with the government who seem to operate as if the court had never commented on this matter.

Of course, the last decade has been marred with further harm to the conditions of work and learning and most teachers will tell you no amount of money in their pay packet would ever compensate for the disappearance of resources and the loss of supports. The BC Public School Employers Association (heretofore known as BCPSEA if they are lucky) has been sent out horseless in this round of so called bargaining with a net zero mandate which simply put means they refuse to offer any further money and any increase in wages must come from further deteriorations in the classroom. The government is willing to pay our teachers out of their own conditions of work and out of our kids’ conditions of learning.

 In addition, there is a carefully framed challenge to the whole principle of seniority – the administrators would love to have the right to cut and paste people as unilaterally as they wish. Seniority has its own special quandary but the principle is much fairer and rational than just letting managers promote their private favourites.

There is a relentless dispute over which elements of the collective agreement can be deliberated at the local level. BCPSEA is determined to have its heavy hand on every detail of these contracts. As the bargaining meetings have been going on since March with little actual negotiating unless you count government demands for concessions and threats to legislate teachers back to work, we are now in Phase 1.

I hope the government is enjoying its dominion over this process because they are the ones who should therefore wear it.

What is Phase 1?

This is the first step of job action which is meant to apply pressure to the government with a minimum of impact on our kids. Phase 1 features a ‘teach only’ strategy. This will include classroom teaching, finalising of class room size and composition organisation, communication with parents about their kids’ progress. This does not include some of the data collection and paperwork or out of class supervision normally performed by teachers. All this has been blessed by the Labour Relations Board under the essential service guidelines( I am amazed to hear public education described as ‘essential’ considering the total lack of priority the government usually ascribes to it) and if it becomes necessary to escalate then the LRB must rule on upping the ante.

Whether this intensifies will be up to the side which has come to the table with nothing and considering BCPSEA has yet to arrive with even one costed item, we may be looking forward to Phase 2. I don’t know what Phase 2 is but I am guessing it will be a damn sight more inconvenient for everyone than Phase 1. Maybe it is time for either the organ grinder or the monkey to negotiate productively.

Are teachers entitled to wage increases?

In a democratic society, we recognise as a basic tenet the right to have a genuine say over our conditions of work. After all, we are not serfs (Keep telling yourself that. Repeat “We are Not Serfs…We are Not Serfs”).

While the primary concern of our teachers is and has always been the well being of the students, it stands to reason this is not in any way distinct from seeking decent remuneration for their profession. BC teachers are among the most poorly paid in Canada. Teaching requires a 5 year degree and typically most new teachers  spend the first 3- 5 years on call with an average annual wage of  $15,000.No one expects to work for less and less compensation especially as costs rise. Teachers are no different.

As we listen to the bashing and misinformation, it is important to remember every advance in the workplace will be enjoyed by our kids as they emerge into the adult world. No one stays a child forever and the tone and quality of the life our kids will face is a direct result of our willingness to fight for what is fair and meaningful. Sure teachers want more money – we pay sports celebrities, talentless TV judges and supermodels big style; we fork over huge sums to people who do a great deal less for everyone’s well being and simply regard them as deserving recipients because they are already wealthy. Why not parse off some of that considerable wealth to people who actually do something laudable for a living.

Where does collective bargaining fit in?

There are 2 principles essential if collective bargaining is to function effectively. One is the recognition both parties come to the table with equal status and the other is that the employees are able to withdraw their labour to press for settlement (the employer obviously has the lockout as the parallel possibility). Normally the employer needs the workforce to provide product or perform a useful service and any obstacle to this process is highly inconvenient. The workforce needs to be paid in order to live and care for their families.

However, where is the incentive to negotiate constructively if one party has so much power and influence they need not bargain in good faith? Our government has only to wait this out, cram the airwaves with loaded tales of employee greed and capriciousness and when everyone is well fed up with the state of things, legislate the job action out of existence like a disappointed parent weighing in on a puerile disagreement between children.

For teachers, it is a bitter pill to swallow – the mere fact they have had no negotiated collective agreement  in nearly 20 years should tell us all we need to know about the lack of regard our governments ( not just this one) has for the value and professionalism of teachers and the significance of public education. Teachers will have gear up for a gargantuan struggle – by now they must have noticed the only way forward is by fighting no matter how this looks in the press.

Local or Provincial issues? What are the actual rules on this?

On August 28th 2011, Marguerite Jackson acting as arbitrator on this very matter has ruled the definition of ‘cost provisions’ which are viewed as provincial under the Public Education Labour Relations Act  as follows:

       • all provisions relating to salaries that affect the cost of the collective agreement

        •all provisions relating to benefits that affect the cost of the collective agreement

        •all provisions relating to time worked that affect the cost of the collective agreement

         •all provisions relating to paid leave that affect the cost of the collective agreement

And that is that or as the lovely Ms Jackson says- these cost provisions ‘exhaust the definition.’

Everything else can and should be the jurisdiction of local boards. For many years up to the mid 90’s teachers negotiated with their own Boards of Education and this allowed a more responsive approach from district to district. The disadvantage for the government was they watched as one decent agreement between a local board and its teachers become the gold standard for the rest.

In 1993 ( after the Korbin Commission which among other things examined the bargaining process in BC with a clear eye on cutting the cost of paying teachers) the overarching BCPSEA came to be and has since imposed a monopoly on the whole process of working together to achieve agreements which reflect the diversity and needs of districts. In fact since the advent of BCPSEA, it is commonplace for collegial arrangements and letters of understanding crafted between boards and their employees to be over turned by the thumping great Obergruppenführer of all things.

Is BCPSEA an independent body?

 Yah … sure. Well if you think an assassin sent out by a paying customer is independent than I suppose so but BCPSEA was created to manage with all the subtly of a rhino horn up the wazoo, the collective agreements which exist between the provincial government and their various public school employee groups. I note with interest trustees receive pious little updates from these people who do a rather unconvincing job of sounding measured. Frankly – they hate teachers and are there to make the whole relationship between boards and their employees messy and inauspicious. Moreover, hilariously they think we are fooled by their fake moustaches into believing they are not the direct agents of the government but neutral actors on the labour stage.

Is the job action an appropriate topic for open school board meetings?

Apart from absolutely everyone in the province, the breakdown of relations between our teachers and the government is pretty much our little secret. I defy anyone to snap on a radio, open a paper or haul up Facebook and not find an avalanche of material on the subject generally tilted towards portraying the BCTF like a slightly less moral version of the North Korean Ministry of Mischievous Explosions. This is the issue of the day.

Boards have publicly discussed and commented on labour disputes in the past including the Cowichan Board which in an open meeting back in October 2005 passed the following motion unanimously:

“That School District #79 write a letter to BCPSEA, Chair Ron Christensen expressing disappointment with the condescending and confrontational tone of the BCPSEA communication of October 14th,2005 and reminding BCPSEA that their specific statutory obligation is to negotiate a contract with the BC teachers, and that our students are counting on them to do that without further delay.”

This motion was brought at the end of an open meeting which featured a number of recommendations related to the strike including another to dismiss BCPSEA as the bargaining agent. Some passed and some did not but they all had their time under the scrutiny of the community which is as it should be. The general tone and direction of the process is a public matter – the binding legal details as they roll out may not be but hundreds of teachers in any district must be aware of these anyway.

It may sometimes be uncomfortable for the management to air these issues in open but that is where they belong. We must comment publicly on public matters not cherry pick subjects for closed door proceedings at our whim.

How do trustees fit into this picture?

Trustees can and should take a bold position. After all – despite being willing to repeatedly pass hopelessly inadequate budgets, boards have as a minimum program generally cried out in their frustration about the underfunding and the state of our schools. We write letters, we pass motions and occasionally our professional body -BCSTA- sends out courteous squawks of distress.

The teachers are taking up this work in a vigorous manner and it would be dishonest to deny them now. Trustees are not spectators in fact the 2003 Wright Report (Towards a Better Teacher Bargaining Model in BC) states: “it is important that trustees be part of the collective bargaining process.” Our own BCSTA points out there are 8 specific duties which Boards of Education must fulfill according to the School Act and one of them happens to be “establishing conditions of employment for employees”.

It is our job as the employer to set direction. I hope we are not committed to being slave drivers or despots so we must demand our senior staff and the good folks at BCPSEA who bargain on our behalf adopt a progressive tone free of ‘condescension and confrontation’. We should be reminding them they are obligated to negotiate a contract and not wait for the government to wade in with back to work legislation. I am loath to suggest their conditions of work be unilaterally modified to include a proviso which allows trustees to have them blown out an airlock into deep space if they don’t get on with it.

This can be resolved with the good faith of an honourable government doing more than just hoard money for their own priorities. If I must pick a side based on past actions and evidence of loyalty to our kids, our schools and our public education system, I am afraid there are few particulars which would allow me to choose the Ministry of Education or their beard BCPSEA. I can accept happily the teachers’ understandable wish to seek a salary increase but I cannot overlook the continuous assault the government has mounted on our schools.

If we are to contribute to equalising this situation, trustees across this province must forcefully stand with the teachers and in doing so stand with our kids and their families.

“The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress. Out of its bold struggles, economic and social reform gave birth to unemployment insurance, old-age pensions, government relief for the destitute and, above all, new wage levels that meant not mere survival but a tolerable life. The captains of industry did not lead this transformation; they resisted it until they were overcome. When in the thirties the wave of union organization crested over the nation, it carried to secure shores not only itself but the whole society.” Martin Luther King Jr.


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