Education

A strategic truce

ROBERT SHEPPARD May 4 1998
Education

A strategic truce

ROBERT SHEPPARD May 4 1998

A strategic truce

Education

It is hard to imagine teachers cozying up to government after months of warring rhetoric and force-fed school changes across the country. But in Ontario and British Columbia last week there were two conspicuously public deals between the largest teachers' organizations and their respective governments. In British Columbia,

teachers agreed to a no-increase contract for two years, in exchange for Glen Clark’s NDP government putting more money into classroom services. In Ontario, the leaders of the major teachers’ unions allowed their nemesis—the Mike Harris government—off the hook for at least $8.4 billion in extra pension plan contributions over the next 30 years, accepting an earlier retirement scheme in return. Both agreements came after weeks of intensive negotiations and may, on the teachers' part at least, have had something to do with saving their powder for another day. “Maybe these deals should be seen as clever pre-emptive moves,” says Gerry Caplan, former co-chairman of Ontario’s Royal Commission on Learning.

‘Teachers know they have to persuade parents they stand for education and not for self-interest.”

After months of warring rhetoric, teachers are in a mood to agree

In British Columbia, the tentative agreement means that teachers will forgo any wage increase until April, 2000, when they will be given a modest two-per-cent hike. In exchange, the government will pump an additional $150 million into the school system to create 1,200 new teaching positions. Almost half these jobs will be for librarians, special education assistants, English-assecond-language instructors and

counsellors—the specialist jobs that had been slashed in many districts. Class sizes for kindergarten to Grade 3 are to be reduced to a district-wide average of 18 over five years. The new funding caps a six-week spending spree of nearly $723 million, all dedicated to the province’s elementary and secondary school systems. The money is directed at new hires, new computer networks and new schools to accommodate burgeoning enrolment.

But for the 44,000 teachers who are to vote on the new contract in early May, there is

only the prospect of classroom help—nothing in their pay packet. This is only the second contract since the shift to provincewide bargaining in 1994, when teachers earned a two-per-cent raise over three years. Already, there are signs that some of the larger associations—notably Vancouver and Surrey— might rebel as they did the last time. Peter

Ellis, president of the Surrey Teachers’ Association, sees no significant benefit from gaining new specialty teachers or the new minimum class sizes. “Essentially,” says Ellis, “we’ve gone without a raise for a number of years.”

As the first of four major public-sector contracts currently on the table—contracts that affect more than 200,000 workers—the teachers’ deal is bound to set a precedent. The teachers’ bargaining team voted 5 to 3 against the deal, but was overturned by its executive. Says Kit Krieger, president of the

B.C. Teachers’ Federation: “We didn’t want to be the first of the public unions” to agree to the government line of no wage increases for two years. “They seduced us by putting money into other gains for the classrooms.”

Meanwhile in Ontario, the pension deal provides an out for experienced but perhaps burned-out teachers, and new opportunities for as many as 18,200 new teachers over the next four years. Teachers can retire with 66 per cent of their average salary plus a new $800 annual supplement—as long as the sum of their age and working experience hits 85, down from the previous 90. Ontario Finance Minister Ernie Eves will save money two ways: his salary costs will be smaller for younger teachers, and perhaps more im-

portant, he can cut $500 million a year in supplementary payments to the teachers’ pension plan. For the past three years, the Harris government has tried to make a political issue out of the plan, one of the richest in the country with assets of $55 billion and highprofile real estate investments across the country, including the Toronto Maple Leafs’ new arena. Back in 1992, in the midst of a recession, the plan was valued at a more modest $19 billion when the former NDP government struck a deal with the teachers unions during the so-called social contract cutbacks. The government acknowledged an unfunded liability in the plan and withdrew its payments for three years with the pledge that it would pay back at least $500 million a year in supplementary contributions—over and above what it pays in matching contributions with the teachers—for 30 years.

Marshall Jarvis, president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association, acknowledges that the government’s attacks were creating “a negative atmosphere” for the teachers. But he says the primary reason for accepting the deal was “protecting our younger teachers who are facing the possibility of large-scale layoffs.” Another side benefit, he notes, is that

while the government unloads its supplementary payments, the teachers get to hold on, without sharing, any future surplus in the plan up to $6.4 billion, which a burgeoning stock market is set to deliver. Asked whether the pension deal augured for a smoother relationship between the Harris government and its embittered teachers’ unions, Jarvis offered a blunt “Not likely.” The unions’ objective is still to defeat the Harris government at the polls.

ROBERT SHEPPARD