The evolution of a new round of teacher bargaining will depend on at least three key factors: first, the desire of both sides to reach an agreement rather than play politics; second, the negotiating skills of the facilitator/conciliator; and third, and most important, the ability of large-P politicians to keep well out of the process even with an election looming.
The desire to reach an agreement will involve slamming the door on past stumbles and blunders: withdrawal of service from kids, the application of patently unreasonable (and, as it turned out, unconstitutional) legislation affecting major issues such as class size and class composition, and, of course, grandstanding by anybody.
And yes, this time around, class size and composition will be front and centre on the table again.
Beyond that, from the union’s point of view, it is about jobs for teachers in a time of declining enrolment, and from government’s point of view, about the operating costs of public education because smaller classes in schools require more teachers and more classrooms.
The conciliator will face a formidable task in addressing class size and composition. While that issue is traditionally a key union-government problem, the discussion is now clouded by the implications of the government’s own education plan and the belief held on the part of many progressive teachers that 21st-century thinking about the organization of teaching and learning trumps 20th-century traditional class structures, with 20 to 30 kids sitting in rows with a single teacher at the front of the room.
It’s a biggie, the successful resolution of which may provide insight as to how public education will be conducted in future.
Independence from external influences and an ability to address the facts judiciously and objectively will either establish or demolish the conciliator’s credibility early in the game. No strings of any kind should restrict that person’s options to accomplish the task at hand.
The incumbent government, or those who see themselves as the government-in-waiting, or even the various small-p political factions within the BCTF itself, must maintain an appropriate distance from the negotiations.
Getting to “Yes” without the usual front-page baggage will require that those at the table can dot the I’s and cross the T’s on a new format for teacher negotiations without interference.
Not off to a good start there, either, with the premier unveiling a “10-year framework” even as the BCTF and the B.C. Public School Employers’ Association are inking a mutually agreed-upon deal about how negotiations are to be conducted.
In B.C.’s schools and classrooms, things are changing, have already changed. Public education is scrambling and doing a good job of catching up with the exponentially changing world. It’s a world our kids already inhabit, with their immediate access to unlimited and unfiltered information and their concerns and impatience about how a global economy will either prohibit or permit them to aspire even to their parents’ standard of living.
They wonder if they will become “the new underclass,” as Maclean’s magazine recently described them.
So the story of public education can no longer be all about labour relations. Not now. Not any more.
There is a chance here for a new bargaining framework that even BCTF president Susan Lambert, never one to mince words, calls “historic” and “a significant step in the right direction, a productive move that will help facilitate negotiations.”
Five hundred thousand kids, their parents and 44,000 teachers have their collective fingers crossed that “those above” look beyond the immediate horizons of convenience and don’t mess this one up, that schools open on time in September and everyone can get on with it.
Geoff Johnson is a retired superintendent of schools.