As a government-appointed mediator in British Columbia's teachers' dispute embarked on what he likened to a "mission impossible," critics questioned his pay and independence as well as his ability to negotiate under the government's net-zero mandate.
"It's like a Hansel and Gretel story," Susan Lambert, president of the British Columbia Teachers' Federation, said on Wednesday during a conference call with reporters. "We're being led down a path to a very fine, candy-coated house, but inside there's a risk for us. And that major risk, it seems to me, is a net-zero mandate and further concessions to our collective agreement."
The province on Wednesday named Charles Jago, a former president of the University of Northern British Columbia and the author of a 2006 report on education in the province, as mediator in the long-running teachers' dispute.
Teachers launched limited job action in September and ramped up to a three-day walkout earlier this month. The province, meanwhile, on March 15 passed Bill 22, which bans strike or lockout activity at the risk of hefty fines and imposes a six-month cooling-off period. The existing contract for B.C.'s 41,000 teachers, which was to expire in June, 2011, remains in effect.
Dr. Jago, who on a media conference call said he would be paid about $2,000 a day, has a mandate to look at issues including class size and composition and how bargaining is split along local and provincial lines.
But any deal he brokers between the BCTF and the B.C. Public School Employers' Association, the province's bargaining agent, will have to comply with the government's net-zero policy, which requires new contracts to cost no more than the previous ones did.
And Bill 22 requires that any questions about whether his recommendations meet that requirement be put to the head of the Public Sector Employers' Council, a government agency.
Despite those constraints, Dr. Jago may be able to bridge the divide between the two parties, Education Minister George Abbott said.
"This is an opportunity for the parties to make some progress on issues that they haven't made to date," Mr. Abbott told reporters in a conference call.
Saying she feared a foregone conclusion, Ms. Lambert suggested that money spent on Dr. Jago's compensation would be better directed to teachers' benefits or other contract improvements. Reporters questioned Dr. Jago about contributions to the Liberal Party.
Elections B.C. records show he gave $500 to the Liberals in 2007 and the same amount in 2010.
Asked whether those donations could make it appear that he favours the Liberal government, Dr. Jago said he did not believe that would be the case.
"No, I think people who have worked with me in the past can attest to the fact that I'm very independent," he said, adding that the donations were tickets to golf tournaments.
He acknowledged his chances of success appear slim.
"When I was first approached, I described this as 'mission impossible,' so I think there are enormous barriers and the parties have not been able to agree in the past and there's a sorry record of negotiations going past almost 20 years," he said.
"So am I hopeful? I can't say that I am – but will I give it an honest try – I will certainly say that I will do that."
The mediation period runs to the end of June, when classes finish. The BCTF is slated to vote next month on whether to launch further protests against Bill 22. Against that backdrop, the province this week instructed school superintendents to issue report cards as soon as possible. As part of their earlier job action, teachers have not been filling out report cards.
The relationship between teachers and the provincial government has been rocky for decades. Since provincewide bargaining was introduced in 1994, the two sides have reached a negotiated contract only once, in 2006, when terms included a wage increase and a signing bonus.
Last year, a B.C. Supreme Court judge found parts of Bills 27 and 28 – 2002 legislation that was part of a sweeping overhaul of the public service – unconstitutional and gave the province a year, until April, 2012, to fix it.
Bill 22 was designed in response, and includes a $165-million learning improvement fund to improve classroom conditions. The BCTF maintains that fund falls far short of the amount that was cut by the 2002 legislation.
The BCTF has proposed a three-year deal with a 15-per-cent pay increase, which the province has rejected.