Opinion » Editorial

Conciliation not conflict the answer in teacher-contract talks

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It's tough out there right now in the workplace.

We all know that. A day doesn't go by without us hearing or reading about the number of unemployed in Canada, the U.S., Greece — the number of young university graduates out of work is sobering to those of us who have been fortunate enough to never have to worry about getting or keeping a job.

Much of this workplace shift can be laid at the feet of changing economic times, changing technology and even changes in expectations of employers and the employees.

Certainly in my profession the changes have been staggering since I became a reporter more than two decades ago. Can you believe that I used a typewriter at my first job for a newspaper in London, England — and yes we used to race for the call boxes at local court houses to phone in stories.

Nowadays, if you aren't ready to embrace social media in all its forms, become a video editor, embrace citizen-media, and be obsessed with posting to your media outlet's web you'll never make it.

It's a very competitive world whether we are talking about the job market or the quest to beat out our competitors to bring tourists to Whistler.

Our very success, to some extent, is measured by how well we compete.

Perhaps that is why there is so much negativity just below the surface when it comes to open discussions about the conflict B.C.'s teachers find themselves in with the government.

There is little appetite in the province for the sense of entitlement that seems to ooze out of some of the press releases from the B.C. Teachers Federation, the union that represents the province's 40,000 teachers.

What strikes me most about this situation — and I do have two children in the school system — is that every teacher I speak to or interact with is absolutely dedicated to the success of my child. I hope I don't get anyone in trouble when I say that the job action in schools, which started in September, has not stopped Whistler teachers from being the hard working professionals they have always been. Maybe we didn't get report cards, but teachers made sure, in whatever appropriate ways they could, that parents knew exactly how kids were doing.

Perhaps this can't be said for the whole province — but it is hard to listen to the almost "propaganda"-like information coming out of the BCTF and imagine my kids' teachers repeating it.

Do people think teachers should get a fair wage — absolutely. Do people value the work teachers do — absolutely. Are they entitled to certain wages and benefits because they are part of a union — no. That was clear when late last year details of the "leave" issue in bargaining came up in the media. It was hard to support a proposal that theoretically could have a teacher off on paid compassionate leave and other leaves for more days than there are in the 190-day school year. And while they were off another teacher would have to be paid to do their job. That is just not reasonable.

One can't help but be struck, though, by the fact that the introduction of the government's new Bill-22, euphemistically titled The Education Improvement Act, came the day before B.C. marked anti-bullying day, Feb. 29.

BCTF President Susan Lambert described the bill as: "a destructive act of legislative vandalism that will violate collective bargaining rights for teachers and have a profoundly negative impact on learning conditions for students."

The bill, which lays out a cooling- off period of six months during which mediated talks would take place, does restore the BCTF's right to bargain class size and composition, which was removed from the contract in 2002. But that won't take effect until 2013 — after the next provincial election.

It sticks to the government's net-zero mandate, which means the overall cost of the teachers' contract has to stay the same.

A recent Ipsos Reid poll suggests neither the B.C. government nor the BCTF has significant public support in their battle at the bargaining table.

Roughly a third of respondents backed government and a third backed the union. Four of 10 did not back either side or did not have an opinion.

What is clear here is that a zero wage increase even in these difficult times is unfair – that would mean that teachers are actually earning less as the cost of living goes up. Yes, some of the proposals by the BCTF seem out of touch, but making provisions for adequate prep time for class, getting help into classes for special needs and so on is just "best practices" for our kids.

What's needed here is a union willing to stand its ground on the must-haves — a fair wage increase and proposals that make education better for kids, and a government that can see past a "broken" bargaining system based on an adversarial approach to an agreement that can be negotiated not imposed.

If the government can make B.C. such an attractive place to invest and do business why can't it make the province an attractive place to teach?

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