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kill bill 22

David Parkins for The Globe and Mail

Backstage at the "Kill Bill 22" rally at the legislature on Tuesday, Adrian Dix executed a couple of bunny hops to get revved up before bounding up the steps to address thousands of cheering public-sector union activists.

His energetic speech provided snappy sound bites, but was light on fibre. He rattled off child poverty statistics, prompting the requisite cries of "shame" from the crowd. He proudly declared, "You betcha I'm pro-teacher." Raucous cheers. But the man who is on track to become British Columbia's next premier gave few clues about what he would offer if he were sitting across the bargaining table from the B.C. Teachers' Federation.

Mr. Dix is cautious for good reason.

This week's walkout by the province's 41,000 public-school teachers, and its spinoff localized general strike, is the first sortie of the 2013 provincial election. For the BC Liberals, this conflict is tailor-made to help them reclaim their drifting supporters by defining themselves as tough defenders of the public purse. For Mr. Dix and his New Democrats, the issue plays to their base: Support teachers and better public education.

Mr. Dix was addressing a potential army of election workers and he needed to raise the flag. But inside the legislature buildings behind him, his BC Liberal rivals were hungrily listening for any hint of a spending commitment to public-sector unions from the leader of the opposition.

That teachers are angry about having a settlement imposed – the purpose of Bill 22 – is not in doubt. But the three-day walkout was not likely to prompt the government to get back to the table with more money.

The dispute does create a political wedge issue – not just about education, but the broader question of managing the public purse. The BC Liberal government set the stage, and Mr. Dix and the labour leaders who joined him on the platform all have a role.

It has been years since organized labour flexed its muscle in British Columbia. In the last round of bargaining in the public sector, 138 unions and locals signed "net zero" agreements – no new money – sensing there simply isn't any more to be had. But there was a new mood among the 5,000-plus demonstrators who filled the expanse of the legislature's front lawn that the ground is shifting.

The next election is 14 months away, but the polls show the BC Liberals, in their third term of government, are struggling.

In a poll published late in February, pollster Kyle Braid of Ipsos Reid Public Affairs found teachers had a slight advantage in the public opinion battle. That was before the full-scale walkout, which may have shifted attitudes somewhat, but the results still offer insight for both of the main political parties.

"The Liberals need to recapture a whole lot of voters they have lost to the BC Conservatives since the last election," Mr. Braid said in an interview this week. "They finally have an issue that appeals to disgruntled Liberal voters."

He offers a caution to Mr. Dix, however. "He should be careful. NDP voters are split right down the middle on strike action by teachers."

Which is why, since the day the government introduced legislation to end job action by the teachers, Premier Christy Clark has been baiting Mr. Dix. "On a day when this threat hangs over our public education system, this member doesn't have the backbone to stand up and talk about it in this legislature," she challenged.

She'd hoped to elicit a response that Mr. Dix would deviate from the government's "net zero" mandate and pour more money into teacher salaries. A week later, still without the hoped-for response, Ms. Clark sought to hang disruption in the schools on the NDP.

"The NDP, if they decided to today, could get kids back to school tomorrow," Ms. Clark told reporters on Day 2 of the three-day strike. "The NDP has used every single stalling tactic at their disposal to try to slow it down."

Here is what Mr. Dix has promised the teachers: "Every single NDP MLA will speak in favour of a fair, a real mediation process." Later in an interview, he clarified that he didn't mean that a mediator should be unfettered by the government's need to keep costs under control.

"My position is, you have to negotiate and of course the ability of the taxpayer to pay is high on that list," he said.

The teachers have been taking limited job action since September to back up their demands for wage hikes of 15 per cent over three years. Mr. Dix won't say if government can afford that. "This is an artificial game played by the government," he said. "The Liberals, this is their strike. They wanted it and they got it."

The NDP, during its decade-long tenure in government, bears its own scars from dealing with the B.C. Teachers' Federation. But former NDP education minister Paul Ramsey said Mr. Dix needed to be seen on the stage, for the teachers and the rest of the labour movement. The NDP Leader also has to watch his step: "He's not being looked at as an opposition leader but a premier in waiting, so his remarks are parsed closely," Mr. Ramsey said.

Susan Lambert, president of the BCTF, says her union is non-partisan but she likes what she has heard from Mr. Dix, even though he hasn't committed to more money for teachers.

The BC Liberal record on education has been a steady assault on teachers, she said. By contrast, Mr. Dix "was very supportive," she said. "And the work of the NDP on Bill 22 has been stellar."

Under the NDP government of the 1990s, B.C.'s public-sector unions enjoyed a better relationship with Victoria. But even then there was tension. In 1993, the Korbin Commission called on the province to reclaim the balance of power. In response, Mr. Dix's boss at the time, finance minister Glen Clark, brought in legislation that sought to impose "discipline" to public-sector wages because of the "fiscal realities facing the government."

At that time, one in five working British Columbians was employed in the public sector, and the payroll consumed 60 cents out of every tax dollar. Today, the B.C. public sector makes up just 16 per cent of the province's work force, and 55 per cent of the provincial budget goes to pay their salaries.

That trend would continue under the road map included in the last B.C. budget. The BC Liberals have set out an aggressive plan to bring the province back to surplus next year, in time for the next election. More clashes with the public-sector unions are a given under that plan.

Education Minister George Abbott, in an interview, said that conflict "theoretically" could hurt his party's re-election chances. "But I don't think it will."

He noted that B.C. voters are deeply divided about the government's handling of the dispute with teachers. But it is a wedge that enhances existing political fractures.

"As the battle lines are drawn here, there is a portion of the public that will intuitively side with the teachers' federation," Mr. Abbott said. "And there is a portion that will intuitively side with the government."