Pressure is often necessary to break logjams in protracted labour disputes. And pressure is what will be needed for the B.C. government to end a teachers' strike that has shut down the province's public education system.
The B.C. Teachers' Federation is betting the government will take enough heat from outraged parents struggling to make child-care arrangements that it will either cave in on some of its key demands or impose a legislated settlement. The government, meantime, is calculating that the union will receive enough grief from members having to borrow money to pay bills that it will capitulate on principal points.
(Read up on the issues and history of the education labour dispute with our explainer Q&A.)
It's difficult imagining the government sticking to its pledge not to legislate teachers back to work if a negotiated settlement can't be found. It has a statutory obligation to provide public education. There will come a point where the school year is irrevocably compromised if a strike is allowed to continue. It's uncertain precisely where that point is, but it seems inconceivable the government could allow this dispute to drag on too far into October.
Conversely, it's unthinkable the union would continue a strike that ultimately it can't win.
If the government orders teachers back to work under its terms, what will teachers have gained? Little. While what they will have lost in wages alone would be significant. This clash has the potential to be extremely damaging to the union leadership if it's ultimately viewed that the BCTF gambled wrongly on what the government would do in the face of a protracted shutdown of the system. Teachers will have forfeited thousands of dollars in salary they will never get back, and to what end?
Teachers need to understand there is one bottom line the government will never deviate from and that is around wages and benefits. Premier Christy Clark will not offer teachers a cent more than what her government recently gave other public-sector unions such as the B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union and the Hospital Employees' Union. If it did, it would be deeply embarrassing to those unions that signed for less, and it would destroy any standing the government had with them in the future.
Plus, such a move would trigger "me-too" clauses that some public-sector unions have in their contracts, meaning they would get whatever extra dollars the teachers received. Also, the government would almost certainly have to give nurses – a group it is negotiating with now – at least as much as it gave teachers. Even if the government gave teachers a modest 1 per cent more than what it gave other public-sector unions, that increase and the ripple effect it would incite would cost the treasury hundreds of millions of dollars that isn't there.
Right now, the union is asking the government to double the amount of preparation time a teacher currently gets, which is 90 minutes. That would cost government more than $100-million to pay for the extra teachers (as many as 2,500) who would be needed to cover for those enjoying extra preparation time. The government will never go for that. The union will have to take that demand completely off the table to get to a wage and benefits number that is consistent with what other public-sector unions agreed to.
If it does, there could be the basis for a settlement around the area of class composition. It sounds like the government is prepared to add extra money to its Learning Improvement Fund to further address the composition issue. (But it will never agree to strict quotas or formulas of the type the union is seeking, which could be a sticking point.)
The union is also asking for a $5,000 signing bonus. The government was offering $1,200 but only until June 30; it said it would take that incentive off the table if a deal wasn't reached by then.
It's difficult to see the government sticking to that position if a bonus is all that stood in the way of a potential deal getting done.
At the moment, however, there isn't the will to confront the biggest points of contention in this battle. Parents haven't started getting really cranky about the inconveniences this dispute is inflicting on their lives, and teachers haven't yet felt enough pain in their wallets. Both the government and the union are pretty comfortable in their positions at the moment.
This will change eventually and children will be back at school. And the relationship between the government and its teachers will remain as hopeless and dysfunctional as ever.