It looks like students in British Columbia schools may soon be heading back to class after an extended summer holiday. Parents are overjoyed. No doubt kids are too. The tentative agreement between the government and the province's teachers means it will be five years before another work stoppage can occur – which is the most welcome element of all in the proposed deal.
The instinctive response throughout this dispute has been to say that children have been the big losers. Actually, I think children will be just fine, despite missing a few weeks of classes. It's teachers who ultimately fared the worst in this skirmish.
Many of them lost as much as $10,000 in wages. They may recoup some of that from the proceeds of a $105-million grievance fund that the union won in the negotiations. Still, the best that will give them is a few thousand dollars. The union also negotiated about $30-million in additional funding money to address class composition issues, which will likely be used to hire more teachers, which should help alleviate the workload of some of those already in the classroom (and give the B.C. Teachers' Federation more members). And that's not insignificant.
But the union ultimately had to accept the same modest wage package that other public-sector unions have settled for, which isn't going to move B.C. teachers any further ahead of their peers in other parts of the country – always a sore point. Teachers will likely vote to accept the deal because few can afford to be out any longer. But when they assess the pact in its entirety, it's difficult to believe most won't conclude that the financial hardship and sacrifice they made wasn't worth it ultimately.
The government's decision to let this strike go on and not use the legislative hammer to force teachers back to work immediately may have fundamentally changed the dynamics of labour relations in the province between the government and teachers. The government showed, for the first time, it wasn't afraid to let teachers stand on a picket line for weeks if need be. That was the single biggest game-changing decision either side made in this dispute.
That said, federation president Jim Iker likely did the best he could for his members under the circumstances. The $105-million grievance fund he negotiated stems from court decisions the government lost in connection with its decision to illegally strip class size and composition language from the collective agreement in 2002. (The union was looking for a fund in the neighbourhood of $225-million.)
The government, meantime, estimated the potential liability associated with paying out retroactive grievances stemming from the court decisions to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. It is one of the reasons it is challenging those decisions in the B.C. Court of Appeal.
If it wins in court (the matter could be heading to the Supreme Court of Canada eventually), then it could be argued it offered up the $105-million for no reason. However, if it loses it likely paid the union a lot less than it might have had to otherwise.
The final cost of this agreement to taxpayers isn't yet known. But it's clear the government did not have to blow its budget to get it done. The strike saved Victoria more than $160-million, primarily in unpaid wages, most of which will be used to fund parts of this agreement. That made it easier to get a deal as well.
The union, and Jim Iker in particular, deserves credit for signing a six-year term. (The first year is retroactive.) That is historic. It makes a statement that the union isn't averse to a long-term contract that allows time to set the reset button on relations with government.
The biggest question is whether ideologists at union headquarters can stomach the idea of building a healthy, positive relationship with a centre-right government. Conversely, there are some in the Liberal benches not entirely comfortable with the idea of building bridges with a union that has vilified the government at every opportunity.
With any luck, this tentative agreement signals a new era of co-operation between the province's teachers and the government and an end to decades of dysfunction. But history would tell us we should not get our hopes up.