Jim Iker, president of the B.C. Teachers' Federation, offers up praise for his union's 40,000 members who have been on the picket lines since mid-June without strike pay.
"You have given up so much for your students and the future of B.C.'s education system," he said Friday in an address to his members. "All British Columbians owe you their gratitude."
(Read up on the issues and history of the education labour dispute with our explainer Q&A.)
The teachers have been offered similar words of solidarity and encouragement from others in the labour movement, but a pat on the back doesn't pay the rent, and it is likely that teachers have already lost more money than they can hope to recoup by holding out. Mr. Iker's words reflect that reality.
As he delivered his speech, the average B.C. public school teacher had already lost at least $6,000 in pay in this dispute.
For Surrey school teacher Jim McMurtry, the financial cost is wearing, but he's also upset by the price that students are paying in lost class time.
"I feel like a soldier in the trenches of the First World War, congratulated for making a sacrifice I was duped into making," he said.
It is never easy for a union member to offer a dissenting voice in the midst of a strike and he chose his words carefully: "This war over control of the B.C. education system has left me $14,000 poorer, owing in part to the cancellation of my summer-school job, and closed schools for half a million children for three months. Like all wars, it has stopped being about who is right but who is left – left with any public credibility."
And with so little progress at the bargaining table in recent months, it does look more and more like a game of last man standing, with both the government and the union expending far too much effort on public relations. The government has deep pockets but can afford to let the dispute go on only as long as the public mood will bear it.
Education Minister Peter Fassbender held a news conference on Friday to respond to Mr. Iker's call for binding arbitration earlier in the day. The minister told reporters he is feeling "significant pressure" to settle the dispute – but he doesn't want to legislate, or accept binding arbitration, or move on wages and benefits at the bargaining table.
The government is still prepared to wait the union out.
The B.C. Liberal government has sought to portray teachers as greedy and has suggested it will find more money for special-needs students in the classroom – but only if the union will reduce its demands on wages and benefits.
For teachers, the financial pressure is more acute, and some members nurture a growing resentment that their executive managed to leave nothing in the bank to fund a strike. The war chest was drained for legal battles and ad campaigns that have yet to produce real change in their working conditions.
The BCTF has a reputation for militancy that can leave it at odds with other public-sector unions.
Not for the first time, the union is asking for more than other public-sector unions are settling for, and the government will happily do what it can to further isolate the BCTF. Just a week before the teachers ramped up to a full strike, the government signed a contract with the union representing school support workers and educational assistants. The bargaining team for the Canadian Union of Public Employees accepted the government's standard wage offer, but they also worked out a signing bonus of sorts: CUPE members remain on the picket line with the teachers, but the government will reimburse them for their lost wages due to the teachers' strike if they ratify their new contract.
The BCTF isn't standing alone – some unions have pitched in to help the union as its debts mount. But no one is going to take on the cost of paying teachers' strike pay, which amounts to $2-million each day. And there is no sign that senior labour leaders are using their good relations with the premier's office to get involved behind the scenes to help broker a deal.
The most significant development in the past week is that both the union and the government now appear willing to leave the most difficult issue – class size and composition – to the courts. If this contract deals only with wages, benefits and teachers' preparation time, that should not be beyond the reach of the parties to negotiate a settlement. It wouldn't immediately resolve who wins control of the classroom, but is that grounds to continue the war?