School starts tomorrow and for British Columbia teachers, it means heading back into the classroom without a contract.
Negotiations between the two sides are currently on hold but will resume on Sept. 23.
A mediator spent 13 days this summer at the bargaining table with the BC Teachers’ Federation (BCTF), the union representing 43,000 teachers and the employer (the provincial government and the BC Public School Employers’ Association).
A six-year agreement expired in June followed by five days of talks in July after the BC Public School Employers’ Association requested the Labour Relations Board appoint a mediator, who met with both sides for another eight days at the end of August.
“I think our membership is disappointed that we didn’t get a deal done before school started,” Teri Mooring, BCTF president, said.
“We didn’t anticipate when we started this round that we’d see concessions on the table. It was disappointing to see those concessions and those concessions remain. That’s been very disheartening for teachers. Having said that teachers were in their schools and classrooms the last couple of weeks. They’re ready to go tomorrow, and we look forward to the start of the school year. It’s just too bad that the conditions aren’t more certain.”
The former Liberal government stripped contract provisions in 2002 for class size and composition of students, including those with learning challenges.
Years of labour strife followed, with a province-wide teachers’ strike that had students out of school for five weeks in 2014 when the employer imposed a partial lockout that lasted 25 days.
A landmark Supreme Court of Canada victory for the BCTF in 2016 restored class-size and composition provisions, forcing the government to hire more teachers.
The union wants higher wages and class size and composition language in the contract for grades 4 to 12 in some districts around the province.
They include West Vancouver, where a cap of 20 students exists in kindergarten, with a maximum of 22 students in grades 1 to 3 but no provisions on class-size limits beyond that. Those gaps existed before the Supreme Court ruling and the union is now looking to fill them, Mooring said.
While the School Act limits 30 students per class for grades 4 to 12, she said, a school district superintendent and a principal can change that number so it’s not uncommon for high school physical education classes in some districts to have more students.
Data from the federation show its teachers are the second-lowest paid among their counterparts in other provinces, with Quebec at the bottom, Alberta at the top and Ontario in second place.
Sandra Johnston, lead bargainer of the Alberta Teachers’ Association, said using the Calgary Board of Education’s wages as an average, teachers with five years of education and 10 years’ experience earn $97,372 annually in the province, which has no cap on class sizes.
Mooring said B.C. teachers with similar credentials are paid about $92,000, suggesting the higher salary in Alberta could lure them to the neighbouring province, though Johnston said there’s no indication that is happening.
She said Alberta teachers’ wages have been frozen for six of the last seven years and arbitration aimed at increasing them is set for mid-November, two months later than expected after the United Conservative Party introduced legislation that also delays talks for other public-sector unions.
“They’re expecting to table a budget in October, which has left a great deal of uncertainty for school boards here because they don’t know how much money they will be receiving from government,” Johnston said. “If government reduces funding we might see teachers from Alberta looking at other places for work.”
B.C. Education Minister Rob Fleming said efforts to recruit more teachers are paying off, with 906 out-of-province teachers hired last year, mostly from Ontario, and funding for all 60 school districts was increased for the first time since 2006.
“We’re hiring at a time when we’re making significant adjustments to our school system and other provinces are not, and that may continue to be the case in Ontario, and I think there’s a high degree of uncertainty for teaching professionals in Alberta now,” he said.
As for B.C. teachers’ relatively low wages, Fleming said “that’s historic.”
“We want to work with teachers to get an agreement that’s good for the teaching profession, that’s good for parents and kids. The offer that’s on the table, which we’re going to negotiate, is significantly higher than what the previous government offered.”
James Ellis, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia’s faculty of education, said teachers in the province were the highest paid of all provinces in the 1950s but have slid further down the salary scale.
Ellis said one factor that may have worked against the B.C. Teachers’ Federation during successive rounds of contract talks since at least the early 2000s is its insistence on bargaining class size, adding that in Ontario, for example, it’s been capped by the government, which recently announced the size of high school classes would be increasing from an average of 22 to 28 students over four years.
“If they want to bargain class size that’s going to cost more than wages, probably, because it’ll mean (needing) more teachers and maybe that’s where they’ve come undone,” Ellis said.
“The honeymoon might be over, not on the wages, but on class size and composition.”
With files from Camille Bains, The Canadian Press