The president of the Kamloops Thompson Teachers Association (KTTA) remains hopeful mediated talks will lead to a new deal as B.C.’s teachers and the provincial government return to the bargaining table.
The B.C. Teachers Federation (BCTF) and B.C. Public Schools Employers’ Association (BCPSEA) restarted discussions on Thursday and Friday for the first time since December. The two sides have been at a standstill since the BCTF’s contract with the provincial government expired at the end of June 2019.
KTTA president Laurel Macpherson said the possibility of job action is always in the back of her mind, noting it’s rare teachers have been able to negotiate a contract without some labour disruption along the way.
A strike, however, is something teachers want to avoid, she said.
“Nobody wants to see job action, nobody,” Macpherson said.
Kamloops-Thompson school board chair Kathleen Karpuk said she remains “cautiously optimistic” a negotiated settlement can be reached as talks resume at the provincial level.
Any labour disruption that could occur may be a month or more away from becoming a reality as the union and the province have mediated bargaining restarting this week and continuing through March.
The BCTF has been preparing a job action plan in the event talks break down, but it involves a number of stages before ramping up to a full-scale strike.
A B.C. Teachers’ Federation memo, confirmed by the union as a contingency plan, outlines a four-stage path toward a provincewide teachers’ strike in the coming months.
Stage 1 of the plan is business as usual, with teachers calling on the province to budge from its two per cent a year wage increase mandate.
Stage 2, if members vote in favour, would see teachers limit their work to school hours and withdraw from after-hours supervision and other extracurriculars, such as parent-teacher conferences.
If Stage 3 is needed, 20 per cent of teachers in each school district would begin rotating walkouts.
Stage 4, following another strike vote, would be a full-scale, B.C.-wide strike.
Negotiations at the local level wrapped last spring.
While there are some issues School District 73 and the KTTA have agreed to, there are also some details, such as the possibility of re-establishing a two-week spring break, that remain in limbo as they cannot be discussed until the provincial contract is in place, Macpherson told KTW.
Spring break is now limited to one week in SD73, though there was a three-year span — between 2015 and 2017 — in which the district had a two-week break.
Karpuk said local items that would have monetary implications or impacts, depending on contract term, cannot be discussed until the provincial framework is in place.
At the provincial level, mediator David Schaub prepared a report in November, recommending the two sides agree to a three-year contract, with a six per cent raise over the life of the deal, a $25.6-million fund to address workplace issues and to hold off on making changes to class size and composition language until the next contract bargaining.
The BCPSEA was willing to agree to those terms.
The BCTF rejected that offer as it did not address its priorities to enhance class size and composition language and to improve wages to attract more qualified teachers to B.C.
According to the union, there are still hundreds of teacher vacancies and an unprecedented number of unqualified people teaching via letters of permission, particularly in the Interior and the north.
Macpherson said there is a shortage of qualified substitute teachers available to fill in for classrooms in SD73, noting it is an ongoing concern for the KTTA as it has resulted in instances in which other specialty teachers have to fill in the gaps.
“When the teacher-librarian gets pulled [or] when the learning-assistance teacher gets pulled to cover a classroom, those services aren’t provided for our most vulnerable students,” she said.
The provincial government is negotiating public-sector contracts under its sustainable services negotiating mandate, which calls for a three-year term with wage increases of two per cent each year.
While the BCTF has indicated it accepts that base increase, it added it wants to see changes made to teachers’ pay grid to increase pay and, in turn, entice more teachers.
The last contract between government and the BCTF was a five-year deal and expired on June 30, 2019. It came with a total 7.25 per cent raise. Classes were impacted by labour action in June and September of 2014 before the agreement was signed.
The latest teacher salary grid for SD73, as of May 2019, shows teachers’ salaries ranging from $52,000 to $89,000.
When it comes to the 2002 class size and composition language reinstated by a 2016 court ruling, the BCTF said levels vary across the province’s 60 school districts, including some districts that have none in some areas. The language was bargained into contracts at local levels in the 1980s and 1990s.
Rather than leaving the issue alone, the BCTF wants to set minimums for class size and composition language across all districts.
Macpherson said class size and composition language needs to be updated to reflect the current needs of schools.
While SD73 reinstated its 2002 language, Macpherson said it was not implemented exactly as it was 17 years ago, creating some disagreement between the KTTA and SD73 on how classrooms should look.
“It’s a re-interpretation of the language,” she said.
For example, Macpherson said, in a kindergarten classroom capped with a 20-student maximum, certain special-needs designations among students in the class would lower that cap by one. However, the school district can also apply a two-student exception “flex factor” to go above the cap.
While this flex factor existed in 2002, it wasn’t applied to primary classrooms. Today, Macpherson said, it applies to all classrooms.
SD73 Supt. Alison Sidow declined to comment on the bargaining issue and a representative from the BCPSEA was unable to return a call from KTW as of press deadline as mediated talks are ongoing.