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British Columbia Appeal court gives B.C. Liberals breathing room in fight with teachers

You could hear the relief from the benches of the B.C. government following Wednesday's release of a critical court decision that buys the Liberals time in their interminable battle with the province's teachers' union. Now it may be the union that is worried.

Premier Christy Clark's government had asked the B.C. Court of Appeal for a temporary suspension of an earlier ruling which struck down legislation that unilaterally removed the union's right to bargain class size and composition. The decision was retroactive to 2002, when the original bill taking away those contract privileges was passed into law. Almost immediately, the government announced it would appeal.

Meanwhile, it asked the court to stay the B.C. Supreme Court ruling until its challenge of the decision was heard. Otherwise, the government argued, meeting the requirements of that earlier decision in time for the next school year would cost a fortune and plunge the entire public education system into chaos.

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In his ruling Wednesday, Justice David Harris agreed to the stay. And he seemed fairly persuaded by the picture of widespread bedlam and fiscal disorder painted by the government in its arguments. Listen to him here:

"The evidence demonstrates that the immediate reinsertion of the deleted terms into the current collective agreement will probably lead to a dislocation of current planning and budgeting for the next school year, immense challenges in hiring sufficient suitably qualified staff, layoffs of employees, changes to available school programs, cancelling school programs, creating more classes, moving students to other schools, disrupting programs for special needs students, the provision of additional classroom space (likely through the addition of portables where space permits) and the breaking of contracts with community groups who use school space for their activities as school districts reclaim needed space to accommodate additional classes."

While the B.C. Teachers' Federation will claim that is a patent exaggeration, there is little question that it offers at least a glimpse into the turmoil in which the education system would be thrust if forced to reinstitute contract provisions crafted in another century.

Of course, Justice Harris's decision comes one day after the BCTF announced that it was going to take a strike vote commencing March 4, so frustrated is it by the current bargaining position of the government on myriad issues. The government later complained it was completely gobsmacked by the move, and felt the union should have had the decency to give it the heads-up about what was coming. No one said contract negotiations were fair.

I do agree, however, that it was bush league for BCTF president Jim Iker to denounce the government for its opening wage positions – something that is normally kept confidential while bargaining is under way – while refusing to lay out the union's demand. Craven? If you're going to demean and expose the other side's position, then you have an obligation – under the sportsman's rules of common courtesy and fairmindedness – to say what you've put on the table. In the absence of those numbers we can only assume that revealing them at this time would have been an embarrassment for the BCTF because they are so out of whack with reality.

In the meantime, the two sides somehow need to find a way to continue bargaining. On the surface, I'm not sure how that occurs, but there may be an impetus to make it work.

Obviously, if the government loses its appeal, it is facing hundreds of millions of dollars in additional spending. And then there is the general disarray that will follow, a foretaste of which Justice Harris provided in his judgment. Of course, the government could win and the BCTF could be right back where it started.

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Wouldn't it be in the union's interest to try to negotiate a new set of conditions around class size and composition while it now has some leverage? It may not get everything it had prior to 2002, but it could end up with something more than it will be left with if the government wins its appeal.

And the same goes for the government. It has already lost twice on this matter. Why risk losing again and facing the massive bill that will follow when it could negotiate a class size and composition agreement with the BCTF that gives the union some but not all of what it is seeking?

Absent some give on both sides on this issue, I don't see how any progress gets made at the bargaining table ahead of the appeal court's verdict – which may not be for a year or more. It's time the government and the BCTF had an adult conversation, in the interests of all those children they both insist they care so deeply about.

Follow me on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

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