After more than a decade of war between the B.C. Teachers' Federation and the Liberal government, Premier Christy Clark is proposing to lay down arms and work for labour peace.
With an eye on a 10-year labour deal to be signed before next May's election, Ms. Clark launched a review of the dysfunctional bargaining process on Wednesday.
The review was to be announced in August, which would have allowed several months to tackle the issue. Thanks to repeated delays of the announcement because of unrelated matters, the window for consultations with the teachers' union and other players has now narrowed to just six weeks.
Education Minister Don McRae said he expects to wrap up the talks by the end of November so that he can draft legislation, if necessary, before the next round of bargaining begins in March.
Susan Lambert, president of the BCTF, said she is suspicious of the Premier's agenda and doesn't like the tight deadline. But she is willing to talk. "I absolutely think politics are at play here," she said in an interview. "We are very wary … But the opportunity is there for a successful conclusion and it would be better for everyone if that happened."
The bad blood between the BCTF and the B.C. Liberals goes back to 2002, when Ms. Clark, as minister of education, stripped teachers of the right to negotiate their working conditions. For decades, negotiated settlements with the union have been few and far between, with contracts more likely to be imposed by legislative fiat. The union accepted a deal last June after an entire school year was marred by labour disruption.
On Wednesday, the Premier said she wants to begin a new relationship.
"Those of you who think the weight of history cannot be overcome, I hope you find a way to think about this differently," Ms. Clark said at a news conference. "Think about the impact long-term labour peace would have on our children."
She said a 10-year deal is "ambitious" but she pointed out that her government has secured contracts in recent weeks with other public-sector unions under the current negotiating mandate. However, the two major contracts, with the BC Nurses' Union and the B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union, were for a period of only two years – a 10-year deal would be exceptional.
Ms. Lambert said such a long contract would be very difficult to advocate for. "There is little incentive. You can't predict what teaching will look like 10 years from now."
However, the B.C. New Democrats are signalling that if they win the next election, they likely won't be much more accommodating to the BCTF, so the union may be inspired to cut a deal with Ms. Clark's government.
Absent from the announcement were any other representatives of the education system – the union, administrators, parent advisory councils or school trustees. Education Minister Don McRae said that is because this is a "government-led opportunity." He said consultations won't be starting from scratch. They will be based on previous reviews and reports that have attempted, over the years, to address the consistently troubled negotiations with the BCTF.
"Our work begins almost immediately when I walk out this door," he said.
Patti Bacchus, chair of the Vancouver School Board, said school trustees have been reviewing the bargaining process for months.
But she criticized the province for announcing a consultation process without first seeking input on what its review should look like. "I'm hoping it's a positive change and they actually mean it as opposed to a campaign strategy," she said. "But is it meaningful when they come out with a unilateral announcement? That doesn't give me much optimism."