Of all the jobs B.C. Premier Christy Clark handed out to her new cabinet recently, none was as daunting as the one she gave Education Minister Peter Fassbender: Find a 10-year peace accord with the province's teachers.
Knowing this would be on the government's agenda, many members of the newly minted executive council were likely thrilled they didn't get handed the assignment. It will inevitably be a job that is frustrating, thankless and mostly not a whole lot of fun.
Aides to Mr. Fassbender would be advised to keep a supply of Extra-Strength Tylenol nearby at all times.
If you'll recall, when Ms. Clark first introduced the idea of a 10-year labour deal with teachers in January, it was instantly dismissed by the leadership of the B.C. Teachers' Federation as ludicrous and labelled an election ploy.
At the time, the union was pretty cocky, so sure was it that the public was readying to vote the Liberal bums out of office. The BCTF was getting set for a more enlightened era under Adrian Dix and the New Democratic Party.
Except the electorate didn't get the memo, and instead returned Ms. Clark and her team to office with an even healthier mandate than the Liberals received in 2009. That could change the dynamic between the government and several public-sector unions in the province.
Not only did the NDP get its comeuppance in this recent election but, by extension, so did many of the party's most high-profile allies, such as the BCTF. The teachers' union would be cast in a very poor light if it continued to be a stick in the spokes of education policy in the province, especially given the unmistakeable authority the Liberals have just received to carry out their agenda.
That said, I don't think there is any expectation that the BCTF is going to acknowledge this result and embark on a fundamental rethink of its positions.
Even though the BCTF has a new incoming president, Jim Iker, who appears on the surface to be less of a hardened ideologue than many of his recent predecessors, the union is still controlled by those who have forged a combative and destructive relationship with the government for more than a decade now.
Of the people Ms. Clark could have tapped for the 10-year teachers' deal task, she probably couldn't have picked a better person than Mr. Fassbender. As a highly regarded municipal politician, he has overseen many difficult duties already, most notably negotiating a new 20-year service contract with the RCMP. But as onerous as that was, Mr. Fassbender may one day regard it as a preschool picnic compared to what he has in store for him.
I think the key for Mr. Fassbender will be recognizing what is truly achievable in terms of a lengthy armistice with teachers and avoiding the temptation to overreach in the name of hubris and stubbornness. Yes, the government did receive a compelling vote of confidence from the public, and I'm sure among veterans in the Clark government there is the temptation to stick it to the BCTF as a result. But that would be a huge mistake.
While a 10-year labour deal would be wonderful, it may also be impossible. At some point Mr. Fassbender – and his boss – may have to realize that. While Ms. Clark has said the public gave her the power to pursue this new, long-term pact, the fact is she did not make it the central plank in her campaign. Was it in her platform? Yes. Was it discussed much during the election? No. It was all economy, all the time. One thing the election was not about was a 10-year labour deal with teachers.
That said, if in reaching for 10 the province got eight years with teachers, even seven, it would be a monumental achievement, ground-breaking stuff. And if the government made that work, it could set the stage for longer-term deals in the future. But trying to go from typical contracts of three to four years to 10 is a leap that may be too far for many teachers to accept.
The fact is, there aren't many teachers' unions in the world signing decade-long labour deals, let alone ones that count themselves among the most radicalized in the Western world. And the Premier and her new education minister need to bear that in mind.