Contract negotiations between the B.C. government and the province’s teachers were destined to be a messy, ugly affair that precipitated all sorts of name-calling and ultimately provoked a work stoppage.
There are three reasons this was scripted to be.
Firstly, the historical relationship between this Liberal government and the B.C. Teachers’ Federation is as dysfunctional as they come. The two sides absolutely despise one another and there is little of the goodwill necessary to find common ground in labour negotiations. And, it has to be said, the BCTF is one of the most difficult unions in the country with which to bargain.
(Read up on the issues and history of the education labour dispute with our explainer Q&A.)
Secondly, the government had established a wage framework with other public-sector unions that it was never going to deviate from in these talks. This position, in turn, was always going to infuriate a teachers’ union that believes its members are woefully underpaid compared with their peers in other parts of the country. The BCTF opened the negotiations with a wage offer that was outrageously high in the hopes it would ultimately lead to something that was lower but more than what other public-sector unions were getting. That was always a non-starter with the government.
Finally, one of the most contentious aspects of these negotiations involves class size and composition. But again, there was no chance the government was going to make major concessions on this front until it heard from the courts regarding its challenge of an earlier B.C. Supreme Court ruling, which ordered the Liberals to reinstate the more generous class size and composition provisions they illegally stripped from the contract in 2002.
And so it is we now find ourselves on the brink of the school year with little hope that a settlement will be reached before K-12 students are scheduled to begin classes. It is an appalling state of affairs, for which both the government and the union are to blame.
The BCTF has badly misjudged these negotiations. It has remained completely oblivious to the realities that exist around wage hikes the government can offer. Yes, it backed off of its ludicrous opening bid, but still it didn’t occur to the union that a government that has made fiscal accountability and balanced budgets foundational pillars would hold the line on public-sector spending.
Giving the teachers higher wage increases than those it has already negotiated with other public sector unions would have set off an inflationary wage spiral that the government can’t afford.
Beyond that, it seems not to have occurred to the BCTF that the government would never offer up huge concessions on class size and composition ahead of the B.C. Appeal Court ruling.
These negotiations are likely to be an absolute disaster for B.C. teachers. Not only are they not going to get anything close to what they’ve been seeking, they will be out of pocket thousands of dollars that they will never recoup. The union rolled the dice in these negotiations, with no money to properly fund a strike, and it has backfired spectacularly. These may be the most costly negotiations in the union’s history, and for that someone needs to answer.
The government, meantime, seems quite content to wait until the union caves under the weight of a disgruntled membership tired of not having a paycheque. This is all about a government deciding to teach teachers a hard lesson. With a couple of years left before the next election, it is gambling that this dispute, and the huge disruption and inconvenience it has caused parents and children, will be a distant memory. The Liberals may be right, but it is a cynical tactic.
There are no grounds for a settlement and everyone knows it. Given that, the government should reconvene the legislature and order teachers back to work now – not wait until October so it can save more money. It should impose wage hikes consistent with other public-sector unions and wait until the court has spoken to arrive at a resolution around class size and compensation.
Eventually, the government has to give the teachers something and class size and compensation is the area in which it can make amends, regardless of what the court decides. Right now, the government looks every bit the bully that is putting its thumb down hard on teachers, and their union, because it can.
The conduct of both parties in this dispute is inexcusable. The public deserves much better.