I’ll say it again. In the dispute with the BCTF, the BC Liberal government is in trouble. During negotiations, the Liberals’ unceasing public pronouncements front-end loaded the ideas of an “affordability zone” and a settlement “consistent with other public sector unions”. And they repeatedly bargained in the press. This strategy has painted negotiations into a corner. It is now hard for either party to bend without losing face.
And the narrative is bogus anyhow. Negotiations with the teachers can not really be compared to other public sector union negotiations. First of all, the teachers have not had a pay increase for 3 years. And second, the teachers’ situation is complicated by the government’s own twice-repeated charter violation coming back to bite it, as well as the ongoing underfunding of school districts, putting public education into full-on crisis mode. The situation has gotten so bad that the Vancouver School District, in order to be able to continue offering its world class band programs, has had to resort to the temporary measure of spending its contingency fund.
The Liberals want the teachers to give up millions of dollars in court-ordered restitution for charter violations, while getting nothing in return. They feel that they can flex their muscle and grind down the union on this issue. It won’t happen. Having won a stunning court victory, the teachers can claim moral high-ground. They will never give up their quest for compensation. And it’s not greed that motivates them, but a sense of outrage that is revisited every time they look at their class composition. The cuts have gone too deep.
No question, the Liberals can eventually wear the union down financially, and the teachers will have to go to work (though it’s likely that before this were to happen, other unions would weigh in on the Charter violation issue). How many lost school days it will take for this to happen is anyone’s guess. The government has an endless supply taxpayer funds that it can wield on legal appeals and on populist stunts (e.g. a $40 a-day daycare benefit for parents with children under 13). Meanwhile, the union has finite reserves of cash, and can’t last forever.
But to what end would the government do this? Eventually it will have to open schools. Eventually the teachers will have to give up their full walkout and go back to work. But the climate, which has already become acrimonious after 12 years of Liberal de-funding of schools, would become so terrible that it would be very difficult to sustain a vibrant school system. Failing to achieve a deal at the end of a full-scale walkout, the teachers would revert to a slow-burn work-to-rule paradigm which would disrupt school for a long time, and prevent the government from being able to implement systemic change. Without the cooperation of professionals, the government can not run an education system. The students would continue to lose out – big time.
It’s likely that many people would fault teachers for all this disruption, but teachers are well-informed and well-educated, and they have an acute sense of justice. They are not likely to be easily cowed by the opinion of people outside the dispute.
Right now in negotiations, the teachers are willing to compromise on some of the court-ordered compensation. Eventually, the full weight of the court decision will come down on government, and by extension on the citizens of BC. The Liberals would be wise to quietly settle while there is time for people to forget this mess before the next election. To drag it through a low scale job action and court appeals will ensure that the issues follow the Liberals well into the next election campaign.
Furthermore, the casualty count of this battle has already begun. Education workers should be getting paid, and they’re not. Students should be in school, and they’re not.