British Columbia's 40,000 public school teachers will vote Thursday on a proposed contract that could see most schools reopen on Monday, ending a strike that spanned two school years and shuttered classrooms for five weeks.
Premier Christy Clark lauded the proposed six-year settlement as a "historic" deal that could end decades of toxic relations between the provincial government and its teachers. But the bitter conflict, entrenched by a 12-year-old battle over working conditions in the classrooms, left teachers with little to make up the thousands of dollars in wages they have lost since June 15.
(Connect with our B.C. teachers' strike live blog for the latest updates on the strike.)
The labour dispute has been closely watched by parents, governments and teachers in other provinces where labour strife is percolating. Last month, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne told teachers her majority Liberal government won the recent election, not the lottery, and there would be no new money for pay increases. In Saskatchewan, teachers have been in tense negotiations since their contract expired a year ago. Two proposed agreements have been reached and rejected, and teachers have passed a vote of non-confidence against their union's president.
In B.C., a truce was reached in the long-simmering dispute after mediation that ended shortly before 4 a.m. on Tuesday. If approved, it will mean a rare stretch of labour peace in the province's schools and more support for students with special needs. For 550,000 students who have lost the first three weeks of the current school year, it will mean a compressed year of learning – there will be no additional instruction time but provincial exams will be pushed later into the year to account for the slow start.
"We have guaranteed that every student's educational journey in this school year will be kept whole," Education Minister Peter Fassbender told reporters at a news conference.
After job action that cost teachers as much as $10,000 in lost wages, the B.C. Teachers' Federation (BCTF) is urging acceptance of a settlement that includes wage hikes of 7.25 per cent over the six-year deal. That amount is virtually unchanged from an offer tabled by the government's negotiators last June – except the $1,200 signing bonus is no longer on the table. That will make the deal a tough sell for the BCTF's leadership, which ran out of strike pay for its members just days into the dispute.
"Be proud," said BCTF president Jim Iker in an address to members on Tuesday afternoon. "There are meaningful achievements in this deal for teachers and students." He urged teachers to accept the deal. The vote results are expected to be announced on Thursday night. If the deal is approved, maintenance workers and teachers would have a few days to prepare classrooms for the coming week.
Many teachers expressed relief that an end to the strike is in sight. On the picket line at Lord Strathcona Elementary in Vancouver, teacher Conor Murphy said workloads have increased over the past 20 years and he isn't optimistic that much will improve now. But he said he is happy to go back to work. "I am really encouraged, particularly with the opportunity to get schools open and kids back in the classrooms," Mr. Murphy said.
At the heart of the strike was the issue of class size and composition, meaning the number of special-needs students in each classroom. On this score, the BCTF will argue it has won key concessions from the government, including money to support several hundred new teaching positions each year.
The B.C. Liberal government stripped teachers of the right to negotiate class size and composition in 2002. After losing a fight with the union in the B.C. Supreme Court, the government proposed new language that would have locked the teachers in even though the issue is heading to the Court of Appeal in October. Now, both sides have agreed to a process that will leave the courts to settle the issue in the future, while the province has promised a $108-million fund to settle union grievances going back to 2002. Ms. Clark said the agreement will remove uncertainty about the government's potential liability should it lose the next round in court.
The province is also adding $100-million for an education fund that will exclusively benefit members of the BCTF over the next five years. Ms. Clark stressed that the settlement will not jeopardize her government's balanced budget, which is currently projected to be in a razor-thin surplus.
"We've found a way to give teachers a fair raise, improve classroom composition – to really make it work for teachers, but at the same time that we're making sure it still works for taxpayers. So we're not going to have to raise taxes, we aren't going to go into deficit and we're not going to increase our debt."
For parents who have scrambled to find alternative child care, or worried about the impact on provincial exams, which can determine students' access to university, the news of a tentative deal was met with relief.
"I saw the news this morning and I almost started crying," said Emma Owen, a mother in Port Moody. Her son will turn six on Friday and is due to start Grade 1. "The amount of stress that parents had to live was very tough."