The toxic legacy of more than a decade of fractious relations between the British Columbia government and its 41,000 unionized teachers appeared set to boil over Tuesday, when schools around the province are expected to be closed indefinitely by a provincewide teachers' strike.
Hopes for a deal dissipated Monday, as both sides in the dispute accused the other of not being willing to budge from hard-line positions. There now appears little hope classrooms will reopen before the end of the school year, which had been scheduled to conclude on June 27.
"There seem to be two very different narratives about what went on over the weekend in terms of bargaining," Fiona McQuarrie, a business professor with the University of the Fraser Valley, said Monday. "That doesn't give me a whole lot of confidence that this is going to be resolved any time soon."
B.C. teachers launched limited job action in April, moved up to rotating walkouts in May, and last week gave notice for a full-scale strike to begin Tuesday – prompting many students and teachers to clear their desks with the expectation school might be finished for the year.
Teachers were off the job for an unpaid "study session" Monday.
Bargaining took place over the weekend but had limited results. In a media briefing Monday morning, British Columbia Teachers' Federation president Jim Iker accused the government of failing to respond favourably to teachers' proposals, including a provision to extend the term of a new contract from four to five years.
In 2012, B.C. Liberal Premier Christy Clark put forward the notion of a 10-year contract for teachers as a means of increasing stability in the education sector, which has been dogged by labour disputes since provincewide bargaining was introduced in 1994. Since then, only one contract, in 2006, was reached without a labour dispute or provincial legislation.
In May, the province backed away from its demand for a 10-year deal, saying it would instead seek a six-year agreement. Until the weekend, the BCTF had been looking for a four-year term. On Friday, the union said it was open to a five-year deal.
"Everyone knew the Premier's 10-year scheme was never going to fly – but with this proposal, we are meeting them halfway," Mr. Iker said. The BCTF also lowered its wage proposal and made other concessions, but the government in response "sat on their hands," Mr. Iker said.
In a hastily called briefing, government negotiator Peter Cameron challenged Mr. Iker's characterization of the weekend bargaining, saying he misrepresented what took place. "As of midnight last night, we thought we were bargaining," Mr. Cameron said. "We didn't realize we were going to be in a series of media events today – it isn't our first choice, we would prefer to be back in bargaining."
The current round of labour negotiations is complicated by a long-running legal dispute. In 2002, the province introduced legislation that stripped teachers' rights to negotiate class size and composition. The BCTF challenged that legislation in court. Two court rulings, one in 2011 and one in 2014, found the legislation to be unconstitutional. The province is appealing the most recent decision. A hearing in that case is expected in the fall.
With that case still unfolding, the union and the government disagree on how to proceed in the meantime. The union says the court rulings establish the need for more funding and resources for B.C. schools. The B.C. Public School Employers' Association, the bargaining agent for B.C.'s 60 school boards, says it cannot support "the continuation of 1980s-based language" in the teachers' contract and that union proposals relating to class size and composition could cost up to $1.6-billion a year.
The union's latest offer dropped wage demands to 8 per cent over five years, down from its original demand of 13.5 per cent over three years. The BCTF also proposed a $5,000 signing bonus – compared with the $1,200 signing bonus on the table from the government – and asked for new money specifically to deal with classroom conditions.
With a report from The Canadian Press