With every passing day that the B.C. teachers' strike keeps half-a-million students out of the classroom, the likelihood of the government legislating teachers back to work grows – despite an insistence by the province's Education Minister that it will not.
The B.C. Teachers' Federation's more than 40,000 members have been on strike since mid-June. On Wednesday, the union's membership will vote on whether to end the strike if the government agrees to binding arbitration, but the government has repeatedly rejected the possibility and slammed the move as a public relations ploy.
Thomas Knight, a professor at the University of B.C.'s Sauder School of Business, said this leaves legislation as the fastest way to end the current stalemate.
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"Legislating an end to the work stoppage is the most expeditious way and I suspect [the government] has already drafted some legislation to end the dispute," he said. "It's going to be quite a circus in the legislative assembly when the legislation is introduced and debated, but it can be done. Where there's a will there's a way. It could be done in a matter of days."
Education Minister Peter Fassbender has called for the union to suspend strike action, negotiate at the table and bring in a mediator should the sides come close enough. Binding arbitration would be financially irresponsible and legislation would mean another court cycle, he said.
"I think the rush to ask a third party to resolve our issues, or rush to legislation, is something we do not want to do and are not going to do."
The union, which views binding arbitration as a fair, workable and pragmatic plan, called Mr. Fassbender's swift rejection a knee-jerk reaction.
The government has the option of designating certain aspects of the job as "essential," as it did with the invigilation of Grade 10-12 provincial exams, but it would entail a messy process that is viewed by union supporters as a clear violation of a fair collective bargaining process. It would also likely mean expensive and time-consuming hearings and appeals over what can be given the "essential" designation while offering no sign of a satisfactory, long-term solution, Mr. Knight said.
"The [Labour Relations Board] might declare that certain courses, or certain schools, Grade 12, certain subjects must proceed," he said. "That's going to be a half-baked outcome."
George Abbott, who served as the B.C. Liberal education minister before the last election, predicted the government will be forced to end the strike – either through legislation or other means – in coming weeks.
"The government is in a difficult place," Mr. Abbott said in an interview. "We are in the second week and there is no significant movement. The challenge is how long can government leave the schools unopened. At some point the pressure to act becomes enormous … They have at least another few weeks before they get stuck."
The legislature is set to resume on Oct. 6.
Government House Leader Mike de Jong told reporters on Monday he is is not ready to force an end to the strike and he refused to say how long the government can hold out despite its obligation to provide access to a public education.
"We have an obligation to ensure students receive a solid public school education," he acknowledged, but added: "We have an obligation to do that in a way that is affordable to taxpayers, and we have an obligation to exhaust every possible means of negotiating an agreement."
He added that the government is not willing to give up its control of labour costs to any third party.
"Our job amongst other things is to protect the interests of taxpayers – it is not to surrender to some unaccountable third party the responsibility for determining a question that involves hundreds of millions, maybe billions of taxpayer dollars."