This coming week will be a pivotal point in the long-running labour dispute in B.C. public schools, as job action escalates to the point where parents start looking for someone to blame.
To capture public opinion, both the government and the teachers’ union have been engaged in a public war of words intended to grab the higher ground.
The B.C. Teachers’ Federation is launching rotating strikes this week but calls it “Christy Clark’s lockout.”
The government, which has moved to dock teachers’ pay, in turn has branded the union as greedy, and is trying to play other public-sector unions against the BCTF, saying their demands would leave less money on the table for others.
Last week, Premier Christy Clark tossed a firecracker into the dispute when she described the teachers’ approach to bargaining like this: “It’s all about money, it’s never about quality of education.”
But over the weekend, at a B.C. Liberal convention that was mostly a celebration of her 2013 electoral victory, there were pockets within the Liberal ranks who worry that such hardball tactics will lead the public to blame government for the disruption in the schools.
That concern may have helped produce a more tempered tone from the Premier, who on Saturday took pains to say the province’s hard-working teachers deserve a raise.
Ms. Clark has a long history in the dispute – she was the education minister who stripped the teachers of the right to negotiate class size and composition more than a dozen years ago.
Today, her government is offering pay hikes over a six-year contract and a $1,200 bonus if teachers will sign a deal before the end of June, but the province still refuses to deal with those key issues.
The province has been ordered by the B.C. Supreme Court to restore class size and composition but has opted to appeal the ruling. That has left the current round of bargaining to lurch toward the end of the school year with little hope for negotiated peace.
“This bargaining structure is totally broken,” Ms. Clark told reporters in Kelowna on the weekend. “We have to fix it.”
But fix it how? Legislate an end to the dispute? The Premier wouldn’t say, although she certainly didn’t rule that option out.
Her Education Minister, Peter Fassbender, says the government is at war with the BCTF, not teachers themselves. It’s a fine line to walk.
“The difficulty is with the BCTF – and I don’t lump the teachers in with the BCTF,” he said in an interview. “We have had decades of discontent [in the public-school system] no matter who the government is, the Socreds, the NDP and us. What is the common denominator? The BCTF.”
It is true that the teachers’ union has had a terrible bargaining record, with only one negotiated settlement in the 20 years it has been in provincewide bargaining. But suggesting that only the government is looking out for kids and quality education is not going to improve relations.
“I have never been disrespectful to any teacher,” Mr. Fassbender said. In the next breath, however, he dismisses their bargaining demands as unaffordable and unrealistic.
Rob Fleming, the NDP education critic, says this is not the time for the government to inflame teachers. “If the Premier wants to make the situation worse, she should keep making, frankly, ignorant comments that are disrespectful to an entire profession.”
If that is not the goal, however, he said the government needs to abandon the notion that it can sit back and wait for a favourable ruling from the courts on the issue of class size and, more critically, the number of special-needs kids in each classroom.
“It’s the elephant in the room,” he said.
Bargaining is set to resume on Monday in a climate of heightened tension. The government says it has made real concessions by backing off on its demand for a 10-year deal, and by offering a signing bonus that no other public-sector union has been given in the current cycle of bargaining. The province hopes that teachers will grow weary of their long fight for better working conditions, and put pressure on their union to settle.
Unless the BCTF comes back with a counter-offer that includes significant movement, the gap is too big to even reach out to the services of a mediator.
Which leaves the province to either leave the dispute to fester over the summer break, or impose legislation to end the dispute as it has so many times before.
The province expects its court appeal to be heard in the fall. If it wants a deal before then, it may need to leave room in a new contract for a reopener, should it lose its appeal. It would be, in effect, acknowledging the elephant, and asking it to step outside.