The B.C. education ministry says it isn't surprised by a more than $8-million loan pledged by the provincial labour movement to striking teachers Wednesday, saying the unions have a "vested interest" in the dispute.
The B.C. Federation of Labour brokered the interest-free funding from B.C.'s biggest unions, earmarking the funds for the cash-strapped B.C. Teachers' Federation which has been on a province-wide strike since June 17.
"There is no doubt this assistance will be welcomed by teachers, but the easiest and more productive solution is for the BCTF executive to get into the affordability zone, return to the bargaining table and come up with a proposal that is in line with what more than 150,000 public sector employees have settled for," wrote education ministry spokesman Ben Green in an email.
Initially, the teachers' union issued its 41,000 members $50-a-day strike pay, but that fund ran dry after only three days on the picket lines.
The union spent much of its budget pursuing its decade-long battle through the courts, winning a Jan. 17 Supreme Court victory in which a judge ruled the provincial government breached constitutional rights and deliberately provoked a strike for political ends.
"The $8.6 million in loans and support pledged to the BCTF this week amount to roughly $215 per teacher," Green added, "much less than what most teachers earn in a single day."
Loans about 'solidarity': Sinclair
The largest contributor to the loan pool is the BC Government Employees Union (BCGEU), which put $3 million on the table. The Hospital Employees' Union also ponied up $1 million, along with funds from Unifor, the United Steelworkers and several others.
BC Fed president Jim Sinclair said that the loans are important to show "solidarity" between the province's labour unions, particularly since the B.C. government argues that teachers' demands on wages, class size and composition are at odds with what other public sector unions have settled for.
Sinclair said the loan would not be used to resume strike pay for all BCTF members, but set aside for picketing teachers who face particular "hardships" because of lost income.
"This is a really a statement that we support teachers; we thank them," he told The Tyee. "[Teachers] don't need to worry about money during this period of time. If they need more than $8 million, we'll find that too."
The vice president of the Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils warned that the loan could potentially prolong the strike -- depending on how the funds are spent -- but also said the dispute shouldn't force teachers into personal financial crisis.
"We don't want to see teachers lose their houses because they're on a tight budget and can't afford to be on strike," said John Puddifoot. "On the other side, it may lengthen negotiations. It depends on what the BCTF decides to use it for. If it means they think they can afford to hold out longer, it could lengthen the strike."
Labour backs arbitration
The loan announcement comes a day after 13 top union leaders in the province wrote an open letter to Premier Christy Clark backing the BCTF's call for binding arbitration, a suggestion Education Minister Peter Fassbender rejected on the advice of BC Public School Employers' Association negotiator Peter Cameron.
Cameron argued in a Sept. 6 letter that the provincial Public Sector Employers Act forbids the government from "giving a third party the authority to bind employers to a settlement proposal" that exceeds legislated limits on wages and benefits.
"This government does not support binding arbitration as a way to settle this dispute or any other labour relations issue," Fassbender said Monday. "The right place to do it is at the bargaining table -- as difficult as that might be -- but with the means eventually, in this case, to go to mediation if they came close enough on wages and benefits."
The unions behind Tuesday's letter represent roughly 350,000 of the province's public sector workers. About half of those unionized workers have already settled contracts within what Fassbender has termed the "affordability zone."
"Why don't they get into the credibility zone on their side?" Sinclair said today. "The government is more interested in bashing, criticizing and accusing the people who take care of our kids every day and teach them, than in solving the problem... All we're doing is making sure money isn't the issue, and it ends because there's an agreement that includes the resources that [teachers] both legally and morally deserve in the system."