Premier Christy Clark has proposed a 10-year labour contract with B.C. teachers that their union almost immediately rejected as a "ludicrous" attempt to interfere with the usual bargaining process only weeks before the launch of an election campaign.
Ms. Clark, who outlined the proposal in the classroom of an elementary school during a news conference on Thursday, was not available to respond to the teachers' decision to turn down the contract. But she was bullish earlier Thursday about taking a chance on the plan, in which wage increases for teachers would be indexed to those of other public servants.
"I believe this can be done, and I believe it needs to be done because we all have the same interests at heart, and that's making sure we are working for the kids our education system is intended to serve," Ms. Clark told reporters.
Then she referred to a photo-op moments earlier with Grade 2 students.
"We owe this to those Grade 2 students I was talking to today so they never face a day, [by the time] they get to Grade 12, of labour disruption," said the former education minister, known for her combative relationship with the B.C. Teachers' Federation. "Just because it's difficult doesn't mean we shouldn't do it."
Other pieces of the proposal include a formal role for teachers in education-policy decisions, input in allocating funds from a $100-million education investment fund, and the use of professional mediators and conciliators to resolve bargaining impasses. If the BCTF approved the deal, it would be enacted after the election.
Asked why the government was advancing the proposal with so little time before campaigning begins for the May. 14 provincial election, Ms. Clark said it had not been possible to start this process before finalizing the last agreement with teachers in 2012. Ms. Clark announced work on the proposal last October. "We didn't choose that timing," she said.
But Thursday's proposal had only barely been tabled before BCTF president Susan Lambert slammed it as a political measure launched by a government in campaign mode.
"The Premier is campaigning on this," Ms. Lambert said.
The BCTF president was particularly critical of the idea of indexed wages because it would, she said, deny teachers the ability to negotiate wages. "It's quite a ludicrous proposition."
In a statement late Thursday, after Ms. Lambert's news conference, B.C Education Minister Don McRae disputed aspects of the BCTF position and called for a dialogue, as soon as possible, to figure out how to proceed.
He said it would be unfortunate if "misunderstandings" prevented the possibility of negotiating labour peace.
Reporters were told, in a background briefing early Thursday, that indexing teachers wages over the last decade would have meant an average 2 per cent increase per year compared to the 1.8 per cent teachers secured, but Ms. Lambert said the failure of teachers to close the gap was a measure of the "disrespectful" bargaining relationship with teachers.
She also noted the timing of the proposal was "bizarre and suspect" because the BCTF has negotiated a new bargaining framework with the B.C. Public School Employers' Association, and preparing the ratification process. Ms. Lambert said the BCTF made a submission to government in December for the proposal, but none of the union's ideas were included.
Pollster Mario Canseco of Angus Reid Public Opinion, said the Liberals' move was baffling because education ranks low, according to his company's polls, as a subject of concern to voters. In a January survey of 802 respondents, education came in at 4 per cent compared to 28 per cent for the economy and 14 per cent for health care.
Also, he noted polls have shown that B.C. voters largely trust the NDP more, by a wide margin, than the Liberals to handle education as a policy area, so it's not an area where the Liberals can easily harvest votes. Mr. Canseco said the B.C. Liberals may be working the issue to appeal to female voters, seen as more concerned than male voters about education, and close the gaping gender gap favouring the NDP ahead of the campaign. Ironically, Ms. Clark departed the media event in Surrey to travel to Chilliwack for one of the women's-only lunches she has lately been holding.
NDP education critic Robin Austin said he was interested in the pieces of the agreement about a more structured timeline for bargaining and the use of outside facilitators, but that there seems to have been little dialogue about actually coming up with the pieces of the proposal. "I think it's rushed," he said.