Smithson: Ten year deal with teachers: Believe in what seems inconceivable

It seems that the two parties are simply not speaking…so, a 10-year collective agreement simply seems inconceivable.

When B.C.’s government recently suggested that its objective is a 10-year collective agreement with unionized teachers, many scoffed at that prospect.

After all, the recent bargaining relationship between government and teachers has been fractious, to say the least.

Collective bargaining in the public school teachers’ context has been acrimonious and work slowdowns and stoppages of various kinds have become the norm.

It seems, often, that the two parties are simply not speaking (or shouting, as the case may be) the same language.

So, a 10-year collective agreement simply seems inconceivable.

But, things have a tendency to be inconceivable right up until the moment when they occur (and then we look back and wonder why we didn’t see that coming).

A few weeks ago, it was inconceivable that an east coast storm would flood and annihilate substantial portions of coastal New York and New Jersey and kill over a hundred people. And then it happened.

A few months ago, it was inconceivable that one of sport’s greatest champions and inspirational symbols, Lance Armstrong, would be demonstrated to be one of its greatest cheats. And then he was.

A year ago, it was inconceivable that the National Hockey League would march itself back into the situation of perhaps losing another full season of hockey. And now it may happen (stay tuned for how this one turns out).

A decade ago, it seemed inconceivable that a terrorist group could successfully strike at America’s heart and reduce two of capitalism’s icons to a pile of ashes, killing thousands in the process. And then they did just that.

The examples are, of course, endless.

So, the starting point in conceiving of labour peace in this province’s relationship with public school teachers may simply lay in believing it could happen.

Part of the problem with the repeated teachers’ disputes is that neither party may really be motivated to bargain.

Because the employer is, effectively, the provincial government and because the government has the ultimate legislative authority up its sleeve, it knows it need not compromise its position.

And because the union knows the government will ultimately play that trump card, it has little motivation to compromise its own stance.

Because this dynamic is unlikely to change if the system of collective bargaining doesn’t change, the answer is for the parties to voluntarily construct a new system.

The key element of a renewed bargaining structure would be a final and binding arbitration process to break stalemates.

The parties would still enjoy a (time-limited) window in which to settle a collective agreement themselves.

But, if a collective agreement was not attained during the bargaining window, the issues would automatically be submitted to binding arbitration. The key, to me, is an arbitration process in which the arbitrator selects one party’s position or the other, not a compromise between the two.

This would motivate each party to advance a moderate, rather than extreme, position.

The teachers’ union would, of course, have to relinquish the right to strike and the government would have to give up the right to lock out.

It may sound like a pipe dream, but it’s happened before—in 2007, the B.C. Ferry and Marine Workers Union relinquished the right to engage in strikes and the parties submitted to binding arbitration on hotly disputed issues.

B.C.’s government deserves, in my view, kudos for thinking outside the box on the topic of collective bargaining with teachers.

But, why settle for 10 years of labour peace when there’s a system on their doorstep which could permanently eliminate strikes and lockouts?

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