Premier Christy Clark and her chief of staff quietly slipped into the Vancouver Delta Suites hotel last Friday for a meeting that would turn the tide in the provincewide teachers' strike – a dispute that had already cost students four weeks of schooling with no end in sight.
Ms. Clark and Dan Doyle were there to meet, discreetly, with Jim Iker, president of the B.C. Teachers' Federation (BCTF). The union and the government were publicly at war and this pivotal meeting would be kept secret until the dispute was resolved. It was only after the ballots were counted on Thursday night and teachers accepted a tentative agreement that both sides agreed in interviews with The Globe and Mail to reveal how the impasse was broken.
At Mr. Iker's side was Hassan Yussuff, the new president of the Canadian Labour Congress, who at the Premier's request was acting as an intermediary to help the BCTF reach an accord with the provincial government.
The four were not there to bargain, but to establish a relationship. Trust was the key ingredient that had been missing since contract negotiations began on Feb. 4, 2013.
The teachers' union has ample reason to mistrust Ms. Clark, who as education minister in 2002 was responsible for stripping their contracts, leading to a bitter legal fight over working conditions that continues today. The union branded this Christy Clark's strike.
The Premier, on the other hand, had long been convinced that the teachers' union was too militant, too committed to war, to reach a negotiated settlement that she believed was essential. Her advisers insisted that the BCTF was angling for a Pyrrhic victory – rather than compromise on a deal with the hated B.C. Liberals, it would force the government to legislate teachers back to work.
"The core of the problem was that there was zero trust between the two parties – none," Ms. Clark recounted in an interview Friday.
A chance encounter in a hotel lobby in Charlottetown late in August provided the opportunity for change.
Ms. Clark was in Prince Edward Island for the annual premiers' conference. There, she bumped into Jerry Dias, the president of Unifor, who was in town for a labour conference. Mr. Dias in turn introduced her to Mr. Yussuff, who had just won the leadership of the powerful national union organization in the spring. They agreed to meet over a drink the next day at the hotel bar.
Ms. Clark had already forged a relationship with Mr. Dias months earlier when the two worked together to settle the Vancouver port dispute.
She was quickly impressed with Mr. Yussuff.
"When I met them, I realized, wait a minute, this may be the opportunity I have been searching for all summer to rebuild trust between the two organizations."
Acrimony has been the defining characteristic of relations between the government and the BCTF for decades. But during the dozen years that Mr. Iker has been involved in negotiations for his union, the rancour reached new heights after Ms. Clark's law stripped away the right of teachers to negotiate class size and the number of students with special needs in each classroom.
The battle went to court, and the B.C. Supreme Court awarded victory to the teachers twice. Now Ms. Clark's government is fighting the last judgment in the Court of Appeal. The teachers' union spent so much on legal fees that it could not afford to provide strike pay to its membership.
The Premier's penchant for political hardball further inflamed teachers. She repeatedly attacked the BCTF to stir up public resentment. "It's all about money; it's never about quality of education," she said last May.
When B.C.'s school teachers walked off the job in June, cutting the school year short by two weeks, contract talks hit a wall. With the exception of one day in mid-August, there was no bargaining until the Labour Day long weekend.
Three weekends in a row, efforts to revive negotiations fell apart while schools remained behind picket lines, with 550,000 children outside. Despite top-flight mediator Vince Ready's efforts, prospects of a settlement seemed to dim by the day.
Ms. Clark was feeling the pressure. Mr. Iker maintains his union's strong show of support for binding arbitration helped bring the Premier to the table. Also, exasperated parents wanted the schools reopened. The Premier campaigned for long-term labour peace with the teachers, but was facing calls to simply legislate an end to the dispute – a short-term solution.
Mr. Iker knew his members were growing anxious about the length of the dispute, and their financial losses. Teachers were holding the line in large measure because they believed the Clark government was out to break the union. But there was a growing question within the ranks about the price teachers were paying for their resolve.
Breaking the 'logjam'
Mr. Yussuff flew to Vancouver on Sept. 10 to bring together Mr. Iker and the Premier's chief of staff for a two-hour meeting. He told Mr. Doyle that a resolution was possible, but the Premier would personally need to come to the table. "I don't mind playing the go-between, but they need to establish a cordial relationship – to have a civil and candid conversation," Mr. Yussuff said.
To understand how difficult that was to arrange, Mr.Iker noted that in 12 years, Ms. Clark has avoided meeting with the BCTF leadership. "I think there was a five-minute meeting in 2002."
Sitting down with the two key adversaries in the dispute, Mr. Yussuff was surprised by the warmth in the room.
"Their tone, their body language, my reading of it was extremely positive." The meeting lasted about 45 minutes, but it was enough to rekindle talks. "They both genuinely saw the need for a negotiated settlement, but they hadn't had that direct conversation," Mr. Yussuff said. "They had to break that logjam."
Mr. Iker left the room with the assurance that the Premier shared his determination to get a deal over the weekend, and that her negotiating team was prepared to be flexible on the union's key issues.
Ms. Clark had a chance to look Mr. Iker in the eye and ask whether he was genuinely committed to reaching a deal. "Jim convinced me at that meeting that he really wanted a negotiated settlement."
That afternoon, the negotiating teams for the two sides were back in talks, again, but it was different this time. There was an intent to settle, to not let another week slip by.
The government's negotiators, led by Peter Cameron, made the first move, withdrawing the contentious proposal known as E-80 which would have undone the teachers' past court victories. As the weekend progressed, Mr. Cameron's side also moved on a cash settlement for past grievances, and a new education fund that would be spent exclusively on BCTF members.
Even then, by Monday afternoon as the government-imposed deadline for mediation approached, insiders believed that the chance of a settlement was still hovering around 50-50. Then Mr. Iker, also serving as the union's lead negotiator, made his move. The union countered on wage and benefits just as the deadline was reached. It was close enough to keep everyone at the table. Another major step came at around 10 p.m. when the union proposed to merge its signing bonus with the grievance fund.
A tentative deal, one that seemed so unlikely just five days earlier, was signed by Mr. Iker and Mr. Cameron at 3:45 a.m. on Tuesday.
The test will be whether that short, single meeting can develop into a lasting relationship.
Mr. Iker said it is important that Ms. Clark keep the door open. "I don't want photo ops," he said. "There is an expectation now that we can meet with the Premier to talk about issues. It has to be more than meetings; there has to be substance that comes out of it, not just rhetoric."
Ms. Clark said she shares that goal. "We called a truce between us for five years. We were able to lay down our arms and now we have the space to sit and talk about kids and classrooms and improving outcomes and modernizing education … That is the real prize here."