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Seventeen-year-old Grade 12 student Jazz Groven-Gilchrist, centre, who attends Vancouver's Prince of Wales Secondary School, shouts during a rally after walking out of afternoon classes in support of their teachers. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)
Seventeen-year-old Grade 12 student Jazz Groven-Gilchrist, centre, who attends Vancouver's Prince of Wales Secondary School, shouts during a rally after walking out of afternoon classes in support of their teachers. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Mark Hume

Government, teachers trapped in dysfunctional relationship Add to ...

As the 41,000 disgruntled members of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation walk out (and parents stew about the inconvenience of it all), they find themselves taking part in a strike they didn’t want – but which their union helped orchestrate.

Supporters of the BCTF will argue that the provincial government really caused this strike, by rejecting the union’s call for a mediator appointed by the Labour Relations Board. The government instead imposed its own mediator, who has terms of reference that give the government nearly everything it wants.

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But still, the BCTF must take its share of the blame for the labour mess because it set the stage for government intervention by coming to the table demanding a 15-per-cent wage hike.

In the current economy, faced with a belligerent employer that had signalled it would not budge from a net-zero position, the strategy of seeking such a huge increase could only be described as certain to fail.

And fail it did – after some 80 fruitless bargaining sessions.

Education Minister George Abbott, no doubt with prodding from Premier Christy Clark, herself once a combative education minister, has been so truculent one can’t help but think his government wanted this showdown all along.

It certainly looks that way based on the contents of Bill 22, which is called the Education Improvement Act presumably because calling it Bash the Teachers Act would have been too provocative.

But that’s what Bill 22 will effectively do. It appoints a mediator who can’t really mediate, because net-zero is dictated as the wage settlement. It imposes working conditions concerning class sizes and composition, which should be settled in contract talks. And it bans the union from taking any job action during a lengthy cooling off period, which runs to Aug. 31.

The BCTF can strike until the legislation is passed, but once that happens any employee who continues to picket can be fined $475 a day, while the BCTF can be fined $1.3-million a day.

The government knows the teachers will follow the law faced with penalties like that. So the political strategy is obvious: let the teachers strike long enough for the public to get a taste of how disruptive a school shutdown is. Then step in with a big stick.

It is classic tough stuff from Ms. Clark, who was education minister in the early 2000s when the government refused to fund salary increases, handing school boards staggering budget shortfalls; meddling with the class-size issue and bringing in legislation that the B.C. Supreme Court later ruled was a violation of the constitutional rights of teachers.

Now the government is back with Bill 22 – and we will have to wait and see if this too is legislation that can be challenged in court.

One thing is already abundantly clear, however – the government and the BCTF are trapped in a dysfunctional relationship.

And it has been that way since the start.

The BCTF was founded in 1919, but it didn’t get the right to collectively bargain until 1987 – only after it initiated a lawsuit against the government of B.C. That seems to have set a tone that exists to this day, with negotiated settlements a rarity.

NDP Leader Adrian Dix did help the NDP government get a contract with the BCTF in the late 1990s and it was one with modest wage hikes of 0, 0 and 2 per cent over three years.

The key to settlement, he said, was that both sides gave something.

“Part of the problem they’ve had in negotiations over the last decade, I’d argue, is that when you take away working conditions as an area of negotiation, and then you take away the salary as well, then really there is nothing to negotiate,” said Mr. Dix.

When there is nothing left to negotiate, there is only the picket line. So the teachers are out not because they want to strike, but because they have nowhere else to go. Which is just what the government wanted. But they are also out because of unreasonable wage demands.

However this dispute ends, the toxic relationship between the BCTF and the government seems set to continue. And that needs to change.

One solution would be to divert the parties into the Relationship Enhancement Program, which the Labour Relations Board designed specifically to help troubled parties agree on common goals, and establish a “labour-management relationship based on mutual respect, trust and understanding.”

That sounds better than another bitter strike.

Follow on Twitter: @markhumeglobe

 
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