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Editorials The B.C. teachers’ contract that just might last

B.C. Teachers' Federation President Jim Iker addresses members of the media in Vancouver, Tuesday, Sept.16, 2014. British Columbia's premier is heralding a tentative agreement with public school teachers as a historic deal that will grant the province the longest term of education labour peace in 30 years. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Mercifully, many of the students of British Columbia are at last on their way back to school. Mercifully, too, their teachers ratified – perhaps grudgingly, but by an 86-per-cent margin – an actually negotiated contract on Thursday, not an imposed one, which is to last for six years.

And mercifully yet again – at a comparatively arcane level – in the end, the two sides resisted the temptation to perform in the roles of constitutional lawyers to second-guess the B.C. Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court of Canada, which are both expected to make a judgment in the prolonged struggle between the B.C. government and many of the province's public employees over bargaining rights.

The new contract has built into it a degree of flexibility to adjust to the final decision of the courts. During the strike, leaders of the B.C. Teachers Federation spoke as if two similar Charter-rights decisions from the same judge, Justice Susan Griffin, in the court of first instance, on two similar statutes limiting the scope of collective bargaining, were final. But the constitutional law on collective bargaining as part of the Charter right of freedom of association is still fairly new and somewhat in flux.

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All this has to do with class size and the presence in classes of students with special needs – whether because of disabilities or language.

The B.C. government, for its part, had overreached in the negotiations by saying that, if the higher courts affirm Justice Griffin's decisions, then the government and the school boards would have an automatic right to terminate the whole collective agreement: a heads-I-win-tails-you-lose proposition.

Instead, the agreement puts new money into a fund to alleviate large classes and particular student needs, providing specialist teachers.

There's still a danger that the higher courts will undo the new collective agreement, as it contains a clause saying that it will be "reopened" when there is a final court judgment. There is also to be new bargaining, starting from an agreed-upon passage in the agreement, but the risk remains that it could be undone.

So it's entirely possible that the six-year contract will not last that long. Let's hope that the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court don't make up their minds too quickly. Time could give peace a chance.

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