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Geoff Johnson: Government’s bargaining is a mystery

It might be that things have changed since I was an active player in the public-education game, and it might be that much wiser heads than mine have thought things through before launching onto the front pages.

It might be that things have changed since I was an active player in the public-education game, and it might be that much wiser heads than mine have thought things through before launching onto the front pages.

So I’m curious about a number of teacher labour-relations matters.

Take, for example, the threatened five per cent reductions in teachers’ wages — clearly before the threat was issued someone within government must have figured out how to do that.

Someone must have a plan about how to calculate the exact wage levels of 44,000 teachers and suck back five per cent.

Part of their plan would recognize that in a district of, say, 500 teachers, some are part-time and some are full-time. Teacher salary levels vary from people who teach one day a week for one semester in a high school to teachers with full-time appointments.

Hopefully nobody forgot that teacher salary levels are distributed across a 12-step increment pattern, so some first-year teachers are at a different level of compensation than teachers who have taught for 12 years and are being paid at the maximum level recognized by their contract.

Then there are teachers who earn a bonus because they have a master’s degree and teachers who have earned substantial credits toward a post-grad degree. Those folks earn at different levels, as well.

Again, there are teachers who are paid extra as holders of positions of special responsibility — department heads, teachers who receive isolation and related allowances, and teachers in one-room schools, teachers who have first-aid qualifications.

That is why school districts employ non-teaching staff just to keep track of all this to make sure that everyone is being paid what their collective agreement requires.

Trying to figure out provincially how to calculate at a single point in time, say the end of June this year, just what every one of those 44,000 teachers is earning and how to reduce that amount by exactly five per cent hurts my non-mathematical, non-governmental brain, but I have to assume that somebody knows how to do it.

It can’t be the payroll clerks in each of 60 school districts, because any mistake would result in both a costly grievance from the union and a smack from the Labour Relations Board.

As a fan of Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice I recall the wisdom of the character Portia, who allowed that a debtor, according to his contract, must forfeit a pound of his flesh but not one drop of blood to the lender.

It is possible those within government who conceived the five per cent rollback plan have figured out how to retrieve five per cent from everyone and not a cent more from anyone.

But there’s even more. Teacher salary levels are embedded in their collective agreement, their contract, their pact, their treaty with the employer if you will.

Government, according to two recent Supreme Court of B.C. decisions, does not understand any of those terms.

The B.C. Supreme Court ruled that the province must retroactively restore class size and composition language that was capriciously removed from teachers’ contracts in 2002, and must pay the B.C. Teachers’ Federation $2 million in damages.

That hasn’t happened yet and now government, with no apparent interest in obeying the dictate of the Supreme Court of B.C., is at it again, threatening to arbitrarily negate the teachers’ existing collective agreement.

Government might have figured out, and we can’t be certain of this, that many teachers still receive their annual salaries in 10 instalments.

That skews the appearance of what they are paid each month, but let’s hope somebody “up there” knows about this and also that some teachers receive 12 instalments.

After all, they have computer systems that work some of the time.

To give him/her credit, they also know that the signing bonus of $1,200 probably looks good right now to the 10-month people.

We must hope government has also received authoritative advice that neither the Supreme Court of B.C. or the Labour Relations Board have any real clout and that it is safe, again, to go blundering into and all over a collective agreement.

Here’s the thing, though: Labour relations are built upon a foundation of integrity and that old standby, trust.

“Trust,” it is said, “is like a mirror — you can fix it if it’s broken, but you can still see the crack in the reflection.”


Geoff Johnson is a retired superintendent of schools.