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British Columbia teachers demonstrate for better student learning conditions outside the cabinet offices of the provincial government in Vancouver, March 18, 2013. (ANDY CLARK/REUTERS)
British Columbia teachers demonstrate for better student learning conditions outside the cabinet offices of the provincial government in Vancouver, March 18, 2013. (ANDY CLARK/REUTERS)

Moderate voices win out in education pact negotiations Add to ...

In its quest for an unprecedented 10-year labour treaty with the province’s teachers, the B.C. government may have one thing working in its favour: a new president of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation.

Jim Iker officially started as the head of the union on July 1, taking over from Susan Lambert. Over the last decade-plus, the federation has been led by some fairly hardened militants. Mr. Iker will be no pushover, but he may be the first moderate to hold the position in some time.

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It will certainly take someone of his demeanour to try to fix the broken relationship the union has had with the government since the Liberals took power in 2001. It certainly has not all been the federation’s fault. The Liberals started the fight when they ripped up an existing contract with the teachers in 2002 and illegally stripped them of the right to negotiate class size and composition. It was all downhill from there.

Now the government wants to negotiate a 10-year peace accord.

For his part, Mr. Iker is not flatly rejecting the idea, although it’s clear he can’t honestly see the union inking a pact of that length. He can certainly envision agreeing to a longer-term deal, but he’s making it clear any multi-year contract is going to have to address some long-standing grievances, ones that will not be cheap.

“Some issues are absolutely going to cost money, such as class size,” Mr. Ikers said in an interview.

That’s just one item. Another is wages. Teachers also want more support in the classrooms, which would mean hiring more assistants to help with, among other things, physically disabled and learning challenged students. So it would seem that if the government is truly desperate for a decade of labour peace with the teachers, all it has to do is write the cheque.

And we all know that’s not going to happen.

Mr. Iker concedes that there is some concern among the teaching fraternity that the government’s true agenda here is to silence the union for a significant period of time. That, he assures, is not going to happen.

“We’re not about to stop advocating for students and public education and funding for it,” he said. “We know this government funds almost $1,000 less per student than the Canadian average and that’s not acceptable.”

Despite the union’s reservations with a long-term deal, it’s evident it has been giving the notion some thought.

For instance, it understands that the government is unlikely to give the federation everything it wants in the first year of any such agreement. Mr. Iker suggested that perhaps some provisions of any deal – say around issues such as class size, wages or composition – could be phased in over the life of the agreement.

“We do recognize that some of these items cost money and that’s why we’re interested in staggering them over time if we need to,” said Mr. Iker. “We also know the government has priorities and can find money when they need to.”

The union has said that the education system needs an extra $336-million per year to make up for cuts that have occurred over the last several years. The government has consistently rejected the idea that it has slashed education spending and instead insists it has steadily increased it. Either way, it’s a given that the government would likely have to come up with more money to buy a 10– or even eight-year labour agreement than it would to broker a more traditional compact of three to four years.

Maybe the Liberals feel it is worth it. Maybe the accomplishment a decade-long agreement would signify its value for money.

I remain skeptical that an accord of that length is achievable. It’s too much of a leap, especially given the rancorous relationship the two sides have had over the years. That said, while Education Minister Peter Fassbender may be a novice cabinet minister, he is a skilled politician and perhaps the perfect person for this file.

And on the other side of the table he has a rookie BCTF president who is decidedly different from his often belligerent predecessors.

“I am mellower for sure,” said Mr. Iker, “and do have a positive and optimistic frame of mind. But am I naïve? No. Can I be firm? Yes. But do I know when you need to compromise and be flexible, absolutely.”

Which may be the best news the government has heard coming out of the BCTF in some time.

Follow on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

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