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B.C.’s teachers’ feud dates back decades

Members of the Cranbrook and District Teachers Association gathered in Rotary Park in Cranbrook for the annual Labour Day Picnic hosted by the Cranbrook District Labour Council. Students, teachers and staff would normally be returning to school today, Tuesday, Sept. 2, but the ongoing impasse in negotations between the BC Teachers Federation and the government means public schools across the province are dark. - Barry Coulter photo
Members of the Cranbrook and District Teachers Association gathered in Rotary Park in Cranbrook for the annual Labour Day Picnic hosted by the Cranbrook District Labour Council. Students, teachers and staff would normally be returning to school today, Tuesday, Sept. 2, but the ongoing impasse in negotations between the BC Teachers Federation and the government means public schools across the province are dark.
— image credit: Barry Coulter photo

Tamsyn Burgmann/Canadian Press

Fourteen weeks have passed since B.C.'s more than 40,000 unionized teachers walked off the job in a rotating and then full-scale strike last June, ejecting half-a-million children from classes about two weeks before summer break.

Just a day before the scheduled start of the fall session, there was no indication about when, how or to what extent the conflict will be resolved.

On Saturday, a veteran mediator who spent three days attempting to jumpstart bargaining declared an impasse between the BC Teachers' Federation and BC Public School Employers' Association, the government's bargaining agent. Lead negotiators for both sides acknowledged the new term would be derailed indefinitely.

The trigger for the current dispute is usually identified by teachers as a unilateral blow to the collective bargaining process that occurred in 2002. That's when Premier Christy Clark, who was then B.C.'s education minister, introduced legislation that stripped the union's right to bargain class size and composition.

B.C. Supreme Court has since ruled twice that the government's actions were illegal, but inability to get closure on the case, which is under appeal by the government, remains a major sticking point. Wages, benefits and classroom conditions have been the other key obstacles.

But today's bitter standoff is actually backloaded with more than four decades of labour strife in the province's education sector, said a historian who has documented 140 years of the B.C. school system.

Tom Fleming, who wrote the book "Worlds Apart'' in 2011 and lead a Royal Commission on Education in 1987-1988, said there's been more than 50 strikes and three lockouts since April 1987.

"We've had this reputation of having very turbulent labour relations,'' said Fleming, a University of Victoria professor emeritus.

"There's a history of struggle and conflict that is now in the DNA of both sides. The teachers are innately distrustful of government and government is innately distrustful of teachers.''

Fleming said the province's public schooling system was peaceful for a century up until 1972, run by a neutral civil service that ensured "nobody ever felt the rough hands of politicians on educational issues.''

But then school trustees began setting their sights on politics while a partisan union was built. A recession in the 1980s prompted "restraint'' legislation that reduced the number of teachers and teaching assistants by about 2,000 positions, he said.

With a general strike in B.C. appearing imminent, Fleming was appointed in 1987 to helm a commission to bring peace between the teachers and government. But even before the report was out, the government of the day for the first time granted teachers full-scope collective bargaining powers.

"The BCTF stepped up and said, 'Well, we are the true defenders of public education. We will speak for children, we will speak for parents, we will speak for schools,''' Fleming said. "So now you've had since the '80s a battle for hearts and minds over control of school policy.''

The union's crusader mentality has brought the downfall of at least two provincial governments, said Fleming, while adding no party has been left untouched.

"They fought with everybody,'' he said.

"Maybe (the union and the government) like the particular dance they do every year. They've gotten used to doing business this way.

"It's hugely harmful to the community, to the reputation of public schooling. We're looked at as an educational banana republic across this country in terms of our labour relations.''

The present-day dispute is the culmination of 40 years of battles clouding over the fact B.C. consistently ranks as an internationally top-performing school system, said Jerry Mussio, who spent much of 30 years in the education ministry as a senior bureaucrat.

"You've got these excellent teachers,'' said Mussio, who has since served as Canada's representative in the development of the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment. "I think that they've been poorly served by both government and by their union.

"In terms of the larger picture, getting together and sorting this out so we don't have a repeat of this is crucial,'' he said. "Otherwise we are going to have a crumbling of the public school system, which is disastrous.''

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