High-stakes labour talks are not a spectacle for the conflict-averse. Consider the battle between B.C. teachers and management, which seems to be playing out like a scheduled train wreck – two massive forces barrelling towards each other at full speed.
The teachers, who have voted 90 per cent in favour of strike action and are planning to stop doing administrative work at the start of the school year on Sept. 6, want wage hikes, among other gains. No specific wage proposal has been tabled, but the B.C. Public School Employers' Association has estimated that the demands of teachers, based on their statements, would cost $2.1-billion. The B.C. Teachers' Federation disputes that figure as being wildly hypothetical.
The last five-year agreement that teachers endorsed in 2006 included a 16-per-cent wage hike. But that was a different labour-relations world, before the B.C. government imposed a zero-wage-increase mandate on the public service in 2009. "As long as we are mired in deficits, there is simply no money available for public-sector wage increases," the Campbell government said in the throne speech that year.
All of this creates a challenging environment for negotiations. It appears unlikely that all the province's teachers will receive wage hikes.
Also improbable is the employers' association's suggestion that a deal can be reached by the start of the school year.
Consider also that all of this is happening against the backdrop of a possible fall election that would see the B.C. Liberals seeking a fourth term. The Liberals could be campaigning at the same time that teachers are taking part in a job action.
"It's not the kind of context one would want for a provincial election," notes University of Victoria political scientist Norman Ruff, musing about images of Premier Christy Clark, a formerly combative education minister, and B.C. Liberals under siege on the campaign trail.
But some observers say there may be a way out of the collision course – a bit of bargaining sorcery that would have the effect of having the trains pass through each other.
The solution, they say, may be to trade broad-based wage hikes for more targeted benefits.
Ken Thornicroft, a professor of law and employment relations at the University of Victoria, has been giving the teachers' dispute considerable thought.
The veteran arbitrator and mediator has been working on a 3,000-word journal submission on a Supreme Court of Canada ruling earlier this year that declared "unconstitutional and invalid" a 2002 provincial law that took the makeup of classrooms – in terms of total number of students and special-needs students – out of collective bargaining.
Mr. Thornicroft says he expects money will be put on the table in concessions as opposed to salary increases – for example, new brackets to provide benefits to senior teachers or allowances for teachers with specific skills or educational qualifications. There are many possibilities, he adds.
None of this will be free, but the cost, he says, may be more manageable than a broad-based wage hike: "A flat-out wage increase would affect every single teacher in the province. A lot of these things would put a bit more money in a fair number of teachers' pockets, but it's not the same impact as an across-the-board arrangement."
Mr. Thornicroft says there's nothing new about the approach. "It's a bit of a cheat, I suppose, but optics are everything when it comes to these sorts of things, aren't they?"
Employers' Association president Hugh Finlayson isn't ruling out the approach. "Some creative things will have to be done," he says.
Glen Hansman, the BCTF's second vice-president, says every proposal will be considered, and non-salary sweeteners could be possible. "We'd be receptive to discussing any proposal," he says.
"A deal can be reached at the table. In order to reach a deal, you need to compromise and find something in the middle."