B.C. schools back in session

Union, province ink historic deal through mediation, ending bitter strike

It took much more than an apple to persuade teachers in British Columbia to return to the classroom, but both the union and government have signed a deal — putting an end to a months-long strike.

Students returned to school last week, almost two weeks behind the rest of their Canadian counterparts, alongside teachers who ratified the agreement with 86 per cent support on Sept. 18, after 20 months at the bargaining table. The next day, the agreement was ratified unanimously by the employer, the British Columbia Public School Employers’ Association (BCPSEA) and its 60 education boards.

"In negotiations, there is always give and take, and both parties have to be willing to give and take," said Peter Fassbender, British Columbia’s education minister.

The British Columbia Teachers’ Federation first initiated strike action back in April and, after being partially locked out by the BCPSEA in May, began conducting rotating strikes. In June, this was escalated to a full-blown strike and when both parties hit an impasse at the bargaining table, veteran mediator Vince Ready was specifically requested and brought in in August.

"This was a very tough round of negotiations and a difficult time for many of us on strike, but we successfully pushed back against concession demands and we have emerged as a stronger and more engaged union," said Jim Iker, president of the BCTF.

While chalkboards collected dust, both sides dug in their heels in what has proved to be one of the most contentious labour disputes in the education sector in recent years.

The BCTF received an $8-million interest-free loan from the B.C. Federation of Labour (the umbrella group for unions such as the Hospital Employees Union and the B.C. Government Employees Union). Additionally, the B.C. Nurses’ Union offered a $500,000 donation to the teachers’ hardship fund.

On the other hand, the education ministry provided parents whose children were 12-years-old or younger an allowance of $40 per day for each day their little ones had to stay at home, in order to finance alternative child care.

"A negotiated settlement was really important because it allows us to reset that relationship that has been so dysfunctional for so long," said Christy Clark, the province’s premier.

Only a few details of the collective agreement have been released, but the teachers’ federation confirmed a 7.25 per cent wage increase over the life of the agreement and improvements to benefits. That includes a two per cent increase retroactively effective as of Sept. 1, 2014, 1.25 per cent effective Jan. 1, 2015, one per cent effective July 1, 2016, 0.5 per cent effective July 1, 2017, one per cent effective May 1, 2018, 0.5 per cent effective July 1, 2018, and one per cent effective May 1, 2019. Additionally, $105 million was given to the union to allocate to members in the form of a signing bonus.

As well, an education fund will be established and used exclusively to hire additional bargaining unit members to address class size and composition — a major point of contention and sticking point for the union during negotiations. In 2014, the education fund amounts to $75 million, rises to $80 million for each of the next three years, and then will increase to $85 million in 2018.

The extended health care and dental benefit plans were also beefed up, amounting to an additional $11.85 million.

"We all know this deal isn’t perfect, but it provides some gains for teachers, protects our Charter rights and increases support for students," Iker said. "We will be working to ensure the new gains in this agreement begin to flow as soon as possible. That means more classroom and specialist teachers in schools to help students, our teachers teaching on-call getting fair pay for a day’s work, and a salary boost for all members."

Of note is that the agreement runs for a record-setting six years, from July 1, 2013, to June 30, 2019, a first for the province.

"We have reached an historic six-year agreement with teachers — this has never been done before in British Columbia’s history, so that means five years of labour peace ahead of us," Clark said. "Those are five years in which we can spend our time — rather than bargaining and being in a constant state, as we have been for the past 30 years, of moving from one bargaining session to the next — we can sit and talk about the things that really matter."

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