The union representing B.C.'s public-school teachers has called for binding arbitration to end a protracted labour dispute that has delayed the start of this school year, but the government has all but ruled out the notion, saying it is reluctant to hand over responsibility to a third party.
That leaves parents, teachers and students in continued limbo, with schools closed around the province and no clear signs as to when a deal could be reached. B.C.'s 41,000 public-school teachers went on strike last spring in the latest of what has been a series of labour disputes in the sector since provincewide negotiations began in 1994.
In announcing its call for binding arbitration Friday, the British Columbia Teachers' Federation said the process would be the quickest way to get students back to school. This school year was to begin on Sept. 3.
Binding arbitration is "the fastest and most fair option that will see schools open and kids back in classrooms," BCTF president Jim Iker said at a news conference Friday. "Teachers want to be in the classrooms teaching. I think parents and students will agree – and I hope government does as well."
Under the BCTF's proposal, issues related to wages, benefits and preparation time would be subject to binding arbitration, while other issues – including class size and composition – would be left for court proceedings now under way, Mr. Iker said.
Speaking to reporters a few hours after the union's announcement, B.C. Education Minister Peter Fassbender did not completely rule out binding arbitration but was cool to the idea.
"The one and only option that I believe strongly makes sense is for both parties to be at the table," Mr. Fassbender said, adding that he had not seen the details of the binding arbitration proposal. "I do not relish giving over our responsibility to a third party to make the decision. We've seen the history of that in this province where it has significantly impacted taxpayers in a negative way."
In March, 2002, the province canceled parts of an arbitration settlement reached earlier that year with the B.C. Medical Association – now Doctors of B.C. – handed down by former B.C. chief justice Allan McEachern, saying the deal was too expensive for taxpayers.
Mark Thompson, a labour expert and professor emeritus at University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business, described the likelihood of the province agreeing to binding arbitration as "slim to none," saying the government would be wary of the potential costs of an arbitrator's decision.
Still, the province has not completely rejected the concept, he said.
"You [government] don't want to do it [binding arbitration], but you don't want to be in a position that if circumstances change for some reason, and you decide they have to arbitrate something, you don't want to be seen as climbing down from a categorical 'no,'" Prof. Thompson said.
What appears to be a wide gap between the province and the BCTF on issues including wages and class size and composition makes a legislated settlement more likely, he said.
The current court battle between union and the province dates back to 2002, when the government brought in legislation that took away teachers' rights to negotiate class size and composition.
Two court rulings, the latest this January, have found the provincial legislation violated teachers' rights. The government appealed the most recent decision. That appeal is to be heard in October, with a ruling not expected until 2015.
The province has launched a program to pay parents of children – aged 12 and under – $40 a day for each day children are out of school as a result of the labour dispute.