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Les Leyne: CUPE shows how bargaining can work

Sixteen months of negotiations between the B.C. Teachers’ Federation and the employers’ bargaining agency have resulted in this: Wage positions that are an ocean apart. Zero progress on learning conditions.

Les Leyne mugshot genericSixteen months of negotiations between the B.C. Teachers’ Federation and the employers’ bargaining agency have resulted in this: Wage positions that are an ocean apart. Zero progress on learning conditions. Three weeks of rotating strikes, intermingled with work-specific lockouts, which include a 10 per cent cut on teachers’ salaries. And a full-scale shutdown likely coming soon.

All those endless hours at the negotiating table — 70 meetings going back to Feb. 4, 2013 — have solved next to nothing, and turned the last month of school into a bad joke.

What highlights the futility of the whole exercise is the deal reached by school support workers over the weekend. The Canadian Union of Public Employees sat down with the employers a month before their contract is due to expire. They reached a deal covering 34,000 employees in just five days.

Some would say a CUPE deal is an easier task, because all the high-concept ideas about classroom conditions aren’t on the table. But there is a fairly extensive outline in the tentative deal about education assistants that’s almost as complex as the issues that bog down the teachers’ talks. And there are a number of sophisticated wrinkles in the CUPE deal. There’s a lot more to it that just deciding on how much of a raise janitors should get.

It’s the same government, and the same school districts, using the same bargaining agency. The obvious difference between the two sets of talks is this: The BCTF. CUPE knows how to get to yes. The BCTF doesn’t.

In five short days, CUPE got a deal that has eluded the BCTF for 16 months. Not only that, CUPE has now “lapped” the BCTF. It has successfully concluded two contracts with the government in the time the teachers’ union has spent trying to get one.

The school support workers came to the brink of a strike last year, but concluded a deal on Sept. 20. It was retroactive 14 months and carried through until the end of this month. The CUPE talks were on a different basis, as the provincial government fobbed off the cost of the 3.5 per cent wage hike on school districts. This time, there is an understanding that the ongoing cost of the deal will be directly funded by the government.

Under the deal, support staff are in line for a 5.5 per cent wage hike over five years. There’s a special side deal that sees all their losses as bystanders to the teachers’ strikes or government lockouts made up. Depending on BCTF-government strategy over the next three weeks, that could eventually become a fairly healthy signing bonus of sorts, representing a week or more’s worth of pay.

They’re in line for an additional raise if the economy outperforms expectations, as with all the other public-sector settlements in the current round. There’s a standardized health-benefits plan that’s better for both sides. There’s agreement to focus on upgrading education assistants, using more of them and increasing their general efficiency. And there’s several hundred thousand dollars in new money committed to making sure the deal runs smoothly for the next five years.

Little wonder the government was broadcasting details of the deal to anyone who would listen. The B.C. Public School Employers’ Association even hailed it as “ample evidence that the bargaining system works — when the parties come to the table with reasonable expectations.”

Not much doubt who that line was aimed at.

It’s a different take from Premier Christy Clark and Education Minister Peter Fassbender’s wails just a week ago that the system is broken, as far as teachers are concerned.

You can’t blame the entire 16-month waste of time on the BCTF. The Liberals have a track record of shorting and double-crossing the union that goes back more than a decade. The B.C. Supreme Court essentially confirmed that view last winter, although the decision is under appeal and could vanish. But it looks as if the BCTF strategy of riding that decision and trying to win everything back in one round of talks is a flop.

 

lleyne@timescolonist.com