The B.C. Liberals have retreated from a key campaign promise, ending talk of a 10-year contract with the province's teachers and offering to sign a six-year deal that could defuse the threat of a full-blown strike.
The government's offer will be tabled during negotiations Friday and will include a "time-limited signing bonus" to ensure a deal is signed before the end of the current school year. Neither the union nor the government could offer details on what will be included in the bonus.
The concession comes more than a year into negotiations that have seen very little movement from either side. The B.C. Teachers' Federation has maintained throughout that a deal lasting a decade was "unfair and unreasonable."
Education Minister Peter Fassbender defended a decade-long contract as recently as late April. The long-term deal has been a centrepiece of Liberal policy and was repeated often as Premier Christy Clark promised "labour peace" during her 2013 campaign.
"These two significant incentives are aimed at getting us to an agreement and firmly on a path to long-term labour peace," Mr. Fassbender said in a statement released by his office Thursday.
In the 2013 election platform, the Liberals promised to "immediately begin discussions … to achieve a 10-year collective agreement with the B.C. Teachers Federation."
While abandoning the 10-year pledge, the Education Minister maintained that a six-year deal would be the longest agreement yet in the decades-long acrimonious relationship between Victoria and the BCTF. The minister said a six-year deal would "open the door to a 10-year agreement next."
Speaking with reporters, the minister added that the Liberals would sit down with the BCTF as soon as a six-year deal was secured to talk about a further agreement.
An official from the teacher's union said that Thursday's concession would have come from the Premier's office. "Everyone except for Ms. Clark seemed to know this was unworkable," the official said.
The union was surprised by the news on Thursday afternoon when the government's lead negotiator, Peter Cameron, called BCTF president Jim Iker with the first information on the offer.
It's a dramatic turnaround. The last time the two sides met, the union cancelled their next scheduled meeting, telling teachers "the public talk of 'labour peace' by the Premier and Education Minister is not being shown at the bargaining table." It described the employers' representative as "angry, disrespectful and confrontational."
The province's 41,000 teachers have been undertaking low-level job action for three weeks, stopping the supervision of students outside of classrooms and ceasing all written communications with school administrators.
A further escalation to rotating strikes remains a possibility, with union officials largely mum on what would trigger the walkouts. Teachers would need to vote for a full-blown strike.
"I'm glad they have seen the error of their ways," Mr. Iker said, reiterating that the teachers are looking for a four-year deal. "As of tomorrow we may be closer to term," he said, adding that a number of outstanding issues remain between the two sides.
Despite the province's concessions on contract length, the heart of the current disagreement stems from a court ruling in January that ordered the government to reinstate smaller class sizes and restore staffing levels to 2002 levels. The BCTF was stripped of the right to set levels in 2002 by a previous Liberal government. The BCTF has maintained that the 2002 levels are the starting point for negotiations. The government has balked, claiming the cost of restoring the 2002 contract could be as high as $1-billion.