Guest Column

Jason Ellis is a historian of education and an associate professor in the Department of Educational Studies at UBC.

BC’s public school teachers still have not signed a contract for the new school year. For worried parents, students – and for anyone wondering why there is no deal yet – recounting a little of the history of bargaining between the teachers and the districts and provincial government provides some answers. But it probably will not give much comfort. The two sides are at odds now because of the re-emergence of an issue that they have been unable to resolve for 50 years: “classroom size and composition.” This is an issue that has led to strikes before.

In a large number of districts, teachers’ contracts in force now have caps on the total number of students (“classroom size”), and many have rules as well about the number and types of students with special needs in those classrooms (“composition”). The BCTF wants to write these caps and rules into contracts for teachers in all of BC’s 60 school districts. The BC Public School Employers Association (BCPSEA), representing the districts at the bargaining table, and the government are reluctant. Applying class size caps and composition rules across the province is likely to lead to increased costs, because keeping class sizes low by capping them (at no more than 20-22 students in the younger grades, for example) often means that districts must hire more teachers, and occasionally build new classrooms. School districts and the provincial government have also long maintained that deciding the number of students in a teacher’s class, and the mix of special needs students, is a management right alone. The BCTF, by contrast, believes class size and composition are working conditions and that the union should have a say over them.

The union began trying to negotiate classroom size and composition in the late 1960s. BC labour laws at the time did not allow the BCTF to bargain these things directly because they were considered working conditions, and the law permitted teachers to bargain only their salaries. The BCTF first got around that in Burnaby in 1969 by reaching two separate agreements with the employer. One agreement covered working conditions and the other covered salary matters. The union only signed the second agreement once the employer had agreed to the first. However, its inability to bargain class size directly never sat well with the union.

Things changed in 1987 when a Social Credit government gave the BCTF the right to bargain working conditions because it feared the union would soon win that right in a Charter challenge anyway. The government also gave teachers the right to strike for the same reason. From the late 1980s until the early 1990s, BCTF locals used the new bargaining scope to negotiate contracts with districts that contained classroom size caps. Several times in this period BCTF locals struck over class size and/or composition, including in Vancouver, Nanaimo, and Kitimat in 1991, and Surrey in 1993.

The provincial government became dissatisfied with local bargaining that resulted in strikes, or drove up education costs when in settlements various districts agreed to BCTF classroom size language demands. In 1994 the province decided it would negotiate classroom size matters with the union on a province-wide basis.

This lasted until 2002. Then the BC Liberals unilaterally “stripped” the teachers’ contract of classroom size and composition language. The government decided that instead of negotiating these things with the teachers it would simply legislate them without the union’s consent. The BCTF fought back and took the government to court. As the case moved through the courts, classroom size and composition was at least a contributing factor in the province-wide teacher strikes of 2005, 2012 and 2014.

In 2016, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the government violated teachers’ Charter rights to collective bargaining (their freedom of association rights) when it stripped their collective agreement in 2002. However, the court decision only means that the government cannot legislate classroom size and composition. The BCPSEA is still allowed to negotiate these things at the bargaining table – as is the BCTF.

The Supreme Court ruling did not close the books on disputes between the two sides on classroom size and composition. Far from it, because in effect the court returned things to where they stood in 2002. That is a place where the classroom size and composition issue is very much on the bargaining table, with the two sides a long way apart. British Columbians have not escaped this long history yet.