As pressure tactics go, the opening phase of the B.C. Teachers' Federation job action plan is unlikely to cause the provincial government to wilt at the bargaining table.
More than anything, the five school districts cancelling recess Wednesday is intended to send a signal to teachers, as much as government, that the union is unhappy with the lack of progress in negotiations. It is a relatively quiet statement that will surely grow louder if the two sides remain as far apart as they appear now.
The union earlier announced a three-stage job-action strategy that, down the road, will include rotating, one-day strikes and, ultimately, a full-scale walkout – the big bazooka that would require an unequivocal mandate from members.
By now, of course, parents and students in British Columbia have become used to all this. It's old hat; almost a rite of spring – or fall, depending. Everyone knows how it ends. More often than not, the two sides fail to reach an agreement so the government imposes a legislated settlement. (Sometimes to end a strike.) The teachers remain unhappy, feeling as unloved as ever, while the government shrugs and tells the public it had no choice.
It is the foundation of one of the unhealthiest relationships in the province.
If there is a difference this time around, it's the lack of overheated rhetoric coming from the union. Jim Iker promised to bring a fresh, more reasoned approach to the presidency of the BCTF when he took over last year and so far he's come as advertised. He's resisted launching any verbal hand grenades in the direction of Victoria, or at least not the kind that we've become used to.
In the past, we could count on the union to protest stalled talks by denouncing the government as an uncaring, soulless kleptocracy intent on destroying the public education system in B.C. And the government responding by denouncing the union as a group of radical ideologues intent on breaking the provincial treasury.
To this point, Mr. Iker has been the voice of calm, perhaps deciding there is no sense in wasting ammunition when there is so much of the battle yet to be fought. Still, there doesn't seem to be much reason for optimism. At least, there doesn't seem to be any hope there will be a happy conclusion to the current impasse any time soon. On the contrary, there is every reason to believe we will still be talking about these negotiations into the fall and possibly beyond.
Not surprisingly, the two sides are far apart on wages. The government has offered to pay increases totalling 6.5 per cent over the first six years of a 10-year agreement and hikes tied to the cost-of-living index in the four years following. The teachers have no intention of signing a 10-year agreement and are asking for 13.5 per cent over three years.
The government is insisting that it can't offer teachers radically more than it's offered other public-sector workers, such as nurses, for fear of igniting an inflationary wage spiral. The teachers look at what they make compared to their counterparts elsewhere in the country and say it's time B.C.'s teachers' wages became more competitive.
But the chasm over wages is only part of the challenge. Class size and composition are equally – and in many cases more – important to teachers than money. They want numbers restored to levels that existed before 2001, when the government ripped up the existing contract and the class size and composition provisions that were in it. Last year, a B.C. Supreme Court judge ruled the 2001 move by the Liberals was unconstitutional and ordered the old provisions reinstated. The provincial government has appealed the decision and the case is expected to be heard in the fall.
Given that, why would the government make any move until it hears from the appeal court? It won't.
That means it's more than likely this dispute will drag on. In fact, we could well see a full-scale strike, like we have on many occasions, which will end with the government convening the legislature to force teachers back to the work.
All of which is why no one is getting too excited about a handful of districts cancelling recess. The public has seen this movie many times before and is well aware it is merely witnessing the opening credits of this sorry saga.