Skip to main content

Striking B.C. teachers at the Vancouver Art Gallery during a noontime rally last June 16. Since 1987 when teachers won the right to collective bargaining, there has been only one contract signed without the aid of strikes or legislation.John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Over the past year, the B.C. government has signed deals with nearly half of its public service. Despite the flurry of successful agreements, the teachers' union remains a loud and visible holdout, standing in the way of Premier Christy Clark's dream of labour peace on Canada's West Coast.

The province's 40,000 teachers have fought an escalating series of job actions since the end of winter, culminating with the cancellation of the last two weeks of school in June. Over the summer months, negotiators stayed away from the bargaining table and are now engaged in a game of brinkmanship that will determine when 550,000 students can head back to school.

(Read up on the issues and history of the education labour dispute with our explainer Q&A.)

The two sides know that they have stoked the public's anger and disbelief. In documents and in conversation, they concede that they have presided over a mess, using words like "dysfunctional" and "tortured." But a look at the history of the relationship between teachers and governments makes it clear that the real surprise in the current conflict would have been an amicable and quick settlement. Through decades of trench warfare, more than a generation of rival negotiators based out of Victoria and the B.C Teachers' Federation offices in Vancouver have built up a mythology of past wrongs that continue to influence the discussion at the bargaining table.

The relationship between B.C. governments of all political leanings and the province's teachers over the past three decades has been unparalleled.

Since teachers won the right to collective bargaining in 1987 there have been 52 strikes, a series of controversial legislation, bitter court battles and only a single new contract signed without the aid of strikes or legislation.

With all the angst created among students and parents during this conflict, neither side can claim victory. While B.C. students have some of the highest test scores in the country, those scores have been sliding, especially when compared to competitors overseas. If teachers had accepted the average contract in the public service over the past decade, they would be making considerably more today according to government documents. The union says wages have been stagnant since 2010. That poor showing is in spite of a string of legal and illegal strikes in 2002, 2005, 2011, 2012 and 2014.

"Resentment is woven into the DNA of both sides," according to Thomas Fleming, a retired University of Victoria history professor who wrote a book on the relationship. "These two groups have haunted public schooling for 50 years in this province; the battle between them has been biblical."

The modern relationship between the teachers' union and the province started in 1987 when the Social Credit government of the day was forced to allow teachers to bargain collectively after a court challenge. For the next six years, the province saw the BCTF operate as a federation of 75 individual unions, one in each school board.

Each local union negotiated with a local school board. With the boards eschewing aid from Victoria, the BCTF-led unions had a string of successes, writing into collective agreements much of what the BCTF wants to preserve today.

One of the successes of the period was the introduction of union-led directions on class size and class composition – the main flashpoint in the current conflict. This meant the union would set the number of students and special-needs students in each class, determining how many teachers would need to be hired.

The union wins came at the cost of an average of 16 strikes during three rounds of negotiations from 1987 to 1994, according to the British Columbia Public School Employers' Association.

In 1994, the BCPSEA was created as a counter-weight to the BCTF. It would negotiate for all of the province's school boards from then on and teacher bargaining would also be centralized. Now you had two heavyweights in place to bargain over the conditions of the province's teachers and the lives of students.

"They wanted to get back at us," said Ken Novakowski, the BCTF's executive director for much of the 2000s. "The school boards didn't like that early period, they felt that they got beaten and that caused some of the attitude that BCPSEA picked up when they started negotiating."

In the first provincewide negotiations in 1995, the BCTF vowed "no concessions." According to Mr. Novakowski, the union was looking to raise teachers to the best contracts then found in the province. The government viewed the talks as a "blank slate."

With no agreement possible, both sides agreed to extend the existing contracts to 1998. Attempts at a second agreement failed in 1998 and an NDP government resorted to legislating teachers back to work for the first time.

Everything changed in 2001. With the election of Gordon Campbell and the B.C. Liberals, the relationship worsened. "That was absolutely the point when the relationship broke down," Mr. Novakowski said.

With the provincial economy facing severe headwinds and budgets slashed or frozen, Mr. Campbell and Ms. Clark, the new education minister, looked for savings in the province's contract with its teachers.

With the BCTF seeking double-digit wage increases, Ms. Clark tabled two bills in January, 2002, that legislated an end to an impasse in negotiations and removed class size and composition language from the collective agreement with the BCTF.

"The government felt that the NDP had lost managerial control and cost controls over the system," said George Abbott, then a junior minister in the government.

"I think that retrospectively they would have done things differently, including the amount they consulted with the teachers."

More than a decade later, Mr. Novakowski wipes tears from his eyes when he remembers the day Ms. Clark tabled the legislation. The BCTF had only received a few hours' notice of what was in the two bills.

"That was one of the most emotional moments for a lot of teachers who had sacrificed, worked hard and believed in what they were doing. And then to have it all taken away like that, without any consideration," he said.

(The BCTF contested the 2002 legislation. In 2011, the union won and the government was ordered to restore the language. In 2014, the BCTF won another case on the same legislation. The government is currently waiting on an appeal.)

In 2005, the province's teachers launched an illegal strike after they were legislated back to work for the third time in a row. Months later, an agreement was reached. The relationship remained acrimonious.

Charles Jago, appointed mediator between the two sides in 2011, was struck by the currents running through negotiations. "The mindset of the BCTF was fascinating to me," he said. "Their sense of grievance goes back 40 years. It is real and palpable and is played out at the table. They can't overcome the past."

After months of low-level job action and a strike, Mr. Jago reached a short-term deal that ended in 2013.

"My biggest regret after 34 years in politics was that I wasn't able to turn a corner in the relationship between the government and the BCTF," said Mr. Abbott, who was education minister in 2011.

Now in negotiation again, both sides appear to be close to a six-year deal. The contract would be the longest yet. The BCTF is still fighting to regain what it first won in the 1980s, kept through the 1990s and lost in 2002.

Ms. Clark has pledged to end the current cycle of animosity, now in its 27th year. The government will not legislate an end to the current conflict, leaving both sides to hammer out a deal.

And the day after a new deal is signed, the B.C. Liberals say they will start negotiating a 10-year contract, long enough perhaps for a generation to forget the past.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow the author of this article:

Check Following for new articles

Interact with The Globe