Penticton teachers begin voting on new contract

UBC-Okanagan professor expects new teachers deal to be an issue in the 2013 provincial election

Instructor Larrisa Kuechle spends a moment talking with her Grade 4 students at West Bench Elementary School this week. The teacher's union and the provincial government reached a tentative contract agreement earlier this week.

Instructor Larrisa Kuechle spends a moment talking with her Grade 4 students at West Bench Elementary School this week. The teacher's union and the provincial government reached a tentative contract agreement earlier this week.

Teachers here began voting Thursday on a new short-term contract that will guarantee their labour dispute becomes an issue in next spring’s provincial election, predicts an Okanagan political pundit.

“It seems like both sides have decided to punt,” said Ross Hickey, an economics professor at UBC-Okanagan whose research interests include election timing.

The B.C. Teachers’ Federation begrudgingly recommended its members approve the deal, which is retroactive to June 2011 and expires in June 2013. The result of the teachers’ vote is expected to be announced Friday night.

Okanagan Skaha Teachers’ Union president Kevin Epp said the new pact contains “modest improvements” to medical benefits and leave provisions, but no wage increases or measures that deal with classroom size and composition.

“A lot of teachers are going to hold their nose and vote for this, and are looking at it as a stop-gap measure,” Epp said, but it’s the best that could be done, because “the government put everything in a little box.”

The contract would expire just six weeks after the provincial election scheduled for May 14, which Hickey said will effectively give the public a say on how government should proceed.

“Why not bring it into the election and let people vote on it?”

Hickey said the short-term nature of the deal shows there was “definitely politics in mind.”

For the BCTF, it buys time to see if the more labour-friendly NDP can form the next government, he explained, while for the Liberals it provides an issue on which they can stake a hard-line position that will appeal to right-wing voters.

Epp said the prospect of a new government next spring “probably went through everybody’s mind” at the bargaining table, but believes that with other government employees also seeking new contracts, labour issues will loom large in the election.

“The voice of working people is going to be heard,” he said.

Education Minister George Abbott told reporters on a conference call Wednesday that the “long-term dysfunction” in the teacher-employer relationship will be an issue no matter which party forms government.

“Regardless of who is elected in 2013, I do think the BCTF needs to sit down and rebuild that relationship,” Abbott said.

“Too often the rhetoric associated with these disputes in fact undermines public confidence.”

He also explained that should teachers vote down the contract offer, the government would be left with “few, if any, alternatives beyond a legislated agreement,” and said the sudden announcement of the tentative deal on Tuesday evening caught him off-guard.

But government-appointed mediator Charles Jago was due to report out on his work by June 30, and that deadline “probably had something to do with the parties focusing on getting to an outcome,” Abbott said.

He added that the deal gives both sides some breathing room before opening in-depth talks on issues such as professional development and standardized teacher evaluation.

Premier Christy Clark on the same conference call also praised the contract offer, which she said “protects taxpayers” by sticking to the government’s net-zero policy on wage increases, and provides certainty for parents and students.

However, the BCTF announced Wednesday it had filed a civil lawsuit that alleges in part that the provincial government, via that same net-zero mandate, caused the B.C. Public School Employers’ Association to bargain in bad faith.

The lawsuit also claims teachers’ right to collective bargaining was infringed by Bill 22, which legislated an end to a three-day walkout in March.