There's hope that the decades of conflict between the government of British Columbia and the B.C. Teachers' Federation will gradually become less bitter. The 11th-hour settlement last September made progress. Now, a decision of the B.C. Court of Appeal should help unwind some of the fraught complexities in future contract negotiations.
The teachers' union may well seek leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada, but the four-to-one majority on an unusually large panel of the provincial court of appeal should influence the court of last resort in Ottawa.
The provincial government (on behalf of the school boards, which are strictly speaking the teachers' employers) has consistently taken the common-sense position that management has the right to manage and that not everything can be on the table in collective bargaining.
In particular, the government, led by Premier Christy Clark, held firmly to the position that it would not negotiate over classroom size and composition – "composition" being mostly a matter of special-needs students. Indeed, the government twice passed legislation to exclude these issues from the bargaining with the union. So the legal dispute between the province and the union was about whether it was enough for the government to consult the teachers or whether classroom size had to be bargained about, too.
Classroom size and the resulting teacher-to-student ratio have an obviously large effect on the province's spending. The government's finances cannot be at the mercy of labour negotiations. In February, in the latest budget, Michael de Jong, the Minister of Finance, said that a loss in this court case would be a "major risk" to the government's financial position.
The Teachers' Federation's lawsuit is (or was) a Charter challenge. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms had little to do with labour law in its first few decades. In fact, the Charter doesn't actually mention unions or collective bargaining at all. More recently, the Charter right to freedom of association has sometimes been interpreted to apply to management-labour relations.
But, as the B.C. Court of Appeal pointed out, the Supreme Court has repeatedly said that the Charter doesn't require any specific collective-bargaining regime. And thus it should remain.