Teachers have just ratified an agreement with their employer, BCPSEA, ending their year-long contract dispute. Many may wonder why teachers agreed to it, when this proposed contract does not include the class size and composition improvements that were forefront in the teachers' dispute.
First of all, Bill 22 ensured that class size and composition could not be part of this contract. Bill 22 has been understood by many to be the legislation that imposed a "cooling-off" period and appointed a government-chosen mediator to assist in the dispute.
However, it is little-known that Bill 22 had another section to it, one that involved the School Act, not the teachers' collective agreement. This section in the legislation forbid teachers from bargaining over class size and composition, to the point where the teachers' contract was not allowed to have any provision for class sizes, special-needs limits or specialist teacher ratios.
This ban on this important issue will be removed on June 30, 2013. This means that, by law, the government forbid discussion over class size and composition for this contract. There was no way that teachers could include it in the current contract.
Secondly, there is the fact that class size and composition are dealt with in the School Act, not the teachers' contract. It had been in the teachers' contract until 2002, when the government removed those clauses. In 2006, after a two-week strike and subsequent arbitration, government restored class size limits, but in the School Act instead.
Why would the government choose to put it in the School Act, and not the teachers' contract? The answer is simple: it gives them total control, since they can legislate changes whenever they want, and it allows them to save money by making it easier to break the limits, thus resulting in larger class sizes and more classes with high numbers of special needs students.
Bill 22 has amended the School Act further. It has now removed the meagre constraints around the class size limits, making it even easier to have larger class sizes. It also removed special needs limits in classes.
These changes are written in stone. There is no way for teachers to affect these changes, short of getting Bill 22 repealed. Hence, because it is written into law, teachers can only affect change to class sizes and composition through the courts. Teachers are trying to get the courts to recognize that teachers should have the right to bargain class size and composition, and that the government should not be legislating these issues. Teachers have a current court case that will look at the matter shortly.
The teachers' slogan of "Negotiate, don't legislate" fits well with this current situation. Teachers have been trying for years to get the government to negotiate class size and composition. The government has refused, despite a BC Supreme Court challenge win last year that told them that the 2002 contract stripping was "illegal" and "unconstitutional." The only way to get class size and composition improvements is to get a government that is willing to allow free negotiation over these issues instead of legislating them. This means allowing the teachers to have it in their collective agreement, instead of the School Act.
Teachers need your support in getting the government to commit to negotiating, not legislating. They also need your support in getting the government to commit to funding that will ensure that all students get the attention they need to become successful, contributing members of society. Teachers have reluctantly agreed to this current contract because they have realized that they could not risk a legislated, imposed contract that would have happened this summer. They have also realized that class size and composition could not have been dealt with in this round, since the School Act is not in their jurisdiction. It is only the government that can change that.
The next bargaining round will start in the spring of next year. With the will of the public, perhaps we can get the government to listen, and to "negotiate, not legislate."
Jennifer Heighton Coquitlam
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