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British Columbia Government won’t force a settlement in teachers’ dispute

As the labour dispute in B.C. schools lurches through the final weeks of classes with no resolution in sight, Premier Christy Clark and her Education Minister point to the current mess as evidence that the bargaining system is broken.

If there is a better way, Ms. Clark and Peter Fassbender are not saying. However, there are clues to where they are heading.

When the B.C. Teachers' Federation announced last Wednesday that it will launch a second week of rotating strikes, Mr. Fassbender was asked when his government would impose a settlement through legislation.

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It has long been government's go-to solution, reflecting an intolerance for disruption in the schools. However, the Education Minister departed from the traditional script. "We are not going to run to legislation," he said, "because the pattern we have seen in the past is exactly that."

If the government won't solve the problem by forcing a settlement, it puts more pressure on the parties at the table to actually negotiate. It also increases the chances that the conflict will escalate, but this appears to be a risk the government is embracing.

That prescription is outlined in a white paper tabled in January, 2013.

The government proposed a "more effective bargaining process" by allowing more latitude for strikes and lockouts. Bargaining would be structured to achieve an agreement by the start of the school year in September – or teachers would be forced to take strike action. There would be no drawn-out, partial strikes: Schools wouldn't open until a settlement is reached.

It is a drastic approach, and the government didn't have the resolve to fully adopt the proposal. After the B.C. Supreme Court found the province guilty of bad-faith bargaining, the province doesn't want to be seen to provoke a strike.

Still, Mr. Fassbender's latest tactic does lead in that direction.

Unless there is a resolution at the table by the end of June – and after 16 months of bargaining, that still looks unlikely – this dispute could drag into September. Instead of slapping a Band-Aid on by imposing a settlement, the government is prepared to let uncertainty hang over teachers and classrooms heading into the fall.

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Barring a setback for the government at the Labour Relations Board this week, teachers can count on a reduced paycheque as long as they continue their "phase two" job action. Dragging that out is a tough stand to maintain.

The alternative, if the government won't budge, is the BCTF increases the pressure by ramping up to a full strike. It's not an easy call for the BCTF. Not only does it hurt teachers in the pocketbook, but it tends to turn public opinion against their cause. That is one reason why, in the past 20 years, there have been a total 15 school days lost to walkouts by members of the BCTF.

George Abbott is a former minister of education – probably the only B.C. Liberal minister who managed to maintain a half-decent relationship with the BCTF.

A full strike is an awful way to settle a contract with the teachers, he said in a recent interview. But of the poisons on tap, it is the least toxic, and offers the greatest hope of a lasting resolution.

"If we were talking about a labour dispute at a widget factory, we wouldn't care. But we do care because half a million students and up to a million parents are being troubled by this dispute.

"So if you are not going to ban strikes – and I don't think we should – then the best way to minimize that impact is to structure the negotiation around the start of the school year in hopes that it culminates in a settlement before Sept. 1. But if it does not, you ramp it up."

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Imagine the pressure on both the employer and the union if schools didn't open their doors in September. Each side would have to decide what is really important to them, and might finally reach an agreement that didn't leave a platter full of unresolved issues on the table for next time.

By avoiding a major disruption in the schools through imposed settlements, the B.C. education system has been plagued by long-term instability. For the sake of students, parents and teachers alike, a negotiated settlement is worth fighting for.

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