Christy Clark's idea of a 10-year labour deal with the province's teachers was always more pipe-dream than progressive-minded possibility. But when the B.C. Supreme Court recently found Ms. Clark's government guilty of bargaining in bad faith with the B.C. Teachers' Federation, even going as far as accusing the government of trying to provoke a strike for political ends, the grandiose ambition of a decade of labour peace seemed all but dead.
But if there was any doubt about the profound impact the Supreme Court ruling would have on the already strained relationship between the government and the teachers' union, it was answered on Tuesday. It became evident the moment BCTF president Jim Iker stepped to the microphone to announce teachers will take a strike vote on March 4 in an attempt to force the government's hand.
While certainly a pressure tactic that blind-sided the government's negotiating team, the timing was no coincidence. The decision that was handed down by Supreme Court Justice Susan Griffin was not only a victory in the BCTF's years-long attempt to win back rights and privileges around classroom conditions that were unconstitutionally stripped from their contract in 2002, it was a massive public-relations triumph as well.
The facts that Justice Griffin ruled on made the government look conniving, heavy-handed and morally dishonest. If ever there was a time when the BCTF might find a sympathetic ear with the public in its never-ending fight with government, it is now. So the union is only doing what any other union in the world would advise – strike while you have the advantage.
If Mr. Iker is to be believed, negotiations for Ms. Clark's elusive 10-year deal have been a bust almost from the beginning. Far from offering any carrot, Mr. Iker suggests the government has only asked for concessions and refused to acknowledge Justice Griffin's ruling, which effectively would restore class size and composition numbers to 2001 levels. The province is appealing.
The government has tabled a new budget and three-year fiscal plan that does not allow for any substantive increases in the education budget. Some cost contingencies are built in, but none big enough to accommodate what the BCTF wants, which, among other things, according to Mr. Iker, includes a healthy raise, acknowledgment of the recent court ruling and the hiring of additional specialist teachers to work one-on-one with students. As well, it wants the government to drop concessions it is asking teachers to make on everything from calendar-setting to sick-leave benefits.
"Again, the government is trying to strip teachers' working conditions and freeze wages and have proposed nothing teachers can agree to," Mr. Iker said. "Not a single incentive for any deal, let alone a longer-term deal."
The government disagrees with virtually everything the BCTF says. The union throws out numbers for class sizes and composition and the government tosses out its own. The teachers say they expect a generous wage hike because of how far they have fallen behind their peers elsewhere in the country, and the government says the issue is how much money it has – not how much other governments have or are prepared to finance with debt.
The Liberals have made balancing the provincial budget a priority, which means they will never go into deficit for teachers many believe are paid well already and enjoy benefits and a pension plan of which most in the private sector can only dream.
What we are witnessing are the most discouraging circumstances for contract negotiations between these two sides in years. Fundamental to the dysfunction is Justice Griffin's ruling, for which the BCTF fought long and hard and which the provincial government refuses to acknowledge wholly at the moment.
Given that an appeal is under way, I don't see how the two camps bridge the gap in the interim. Perhaps the appellate court could fast-track the province's challenge. Even on those terms, a final decision could take a year.
Meanwhile, pursuing a 10-year deal seems a waste of everyone's time. It would be better to go after some type of bridging arrangement until the questions on class size and composition are resolved. Because until that is cleared up, negotiations between two sides famous for their toxic differences will remain as poisonous as ever.