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Ruling restores teachers bargaining rights

2002 law declared unconstitutional

A 2002 law depriving the BC Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) of the right to bargain class size and composition will be revoked following a decision from the Supreme Court of British Columbia on Wednesday, April 13.

Justice Susan Griffin’s ruling declared the law, passed by the provincial government, unconstitutional, saying that the government had little consultation with the union before instating the law and that it bypassed collective bargaining.

The law removed existing terms of the union’s collective agreement and prohibited bargaining on class sizes, class composition (number of students with special needs), ratios of non-enrolling teachers (librarian, special education teachers, for example) to students and workload. The government rationalized the law by declaring these issues too important to students to be negotiable through collective bargaining, a point of view Griffin did not agree with.

“The legislation undoubtedly was seen by teachers as evidence that the government did not respect them or consider them to be valued contributors to the education system, having excluded them from any freedom to associate to influence their working conditions,” stated Griffin’s ruling. “This was a seriously deleterious effect of the legislation, one adversely disproportionate to any salutary effects revealed by the evidence.”

Powell River and District Teachers’ Association president Cathy Fisher said the ruling is long overdue and will go a long way toward reestablishing teachers’ rights and improving education. Fisher is also upset over Griffin’s findings that the government consulted with the BC Public School Employers’ Association, the bargaining agent for the province’s 60 public boards of education, before enacting the law but did not consult with the BCTF.

“Those bills basically gutted learning conditions from our collective agreements,” said Fisher. “Those working and learning conditions are things that teachers had bargained hard for over a period of about 20 have that stripped from our collective agreement was devastating for teachers.”

As an example of the effects of the law, Fisher said in about 1999 she taught at a school that had two classes of around 30 elementary students despite a hard cap on 28 per class. There were three classes in which each had four students with special needs, again despite a hard number of two. With no option to move students around, the school district hired two part-time teachers along with four teaching assistants to provide relief and improve the quality of education. She said that since the 2002 laws this simply would not happen.

“That gave us additional marking time, it gave us extra planning time, it helped us make sure that the programming was in place for those kids,” said Fisher. “Right now you have classes with six, eight, 10 identified students in them, minimal support. There just hasn’t been the funding to provide the support that’s needed.”

School District 47 Superintendent of Schools Jay Yule said the district will have to wait and see how this ruling changes things but he’s not overly concerned about the outcome. Locally, he said the Powell River Board of Education had no issues with the language of the bargaining agreement before the legislation, so he’s not worried about any new language that comes from this ruling. Yule did say the pre-legislation language allowed for more local decisions to be made over class size and composition, something which he said was helpful.

“It’s just one of those decisions that’s out of our hands locally,” said Yule. “We’ll abide by whatever decisions there are...Whether it’s our old language or the legislated language, we found processes to work with teachers to make sure it’s beneficial to students.”

Griffin gave the government one year to “address the repercussions of this decision” before having to deal with its consequences. Fisher hopes this process will be streamlined and that the changes be in place by September 2011 for the new school year.

“We say students shouldn’t have to wait another year,” said Fisher. “Why should kids have to wait another year for extra support that they need in order to be successful?”