With the failure of mediation talks over the Labour Day weeks, B.C. schools face their greatest crisis since the shock of the Socreds' "restraint" budget in the fall of 1983.
The province then teetered on the edge of a general strike. We are nowhere near that point now, but the prospect is grim enough: a crippled start to the school year for hundreds of thousands of students, 40,000 teachers still on the picket lines, and the likelihood of a resolution that will leave our schools a permanently toxic workplace.
On Sunday afternoon, BCTF president Jim Iker held a press conference to report on the failure of mediation efforts. He was low-key, more disappointed than angry. The government, he said, wasn't ready or willing to get the job done. It was insisting on an escape clause to protect itself if the Court of Appeal supports the Supreme Court's second ruling in favour of the teachers. He called on Premier Christy Clark to meet him face to face; she had done so to help resolve the truckers' strike, and might be able to do so here.
Answering media questions, Iker avoided any fiery criticisms. What if the teachers were legislated back to work? "We don't want to be legislated. We've made big moves, but there's been nothing from the government."
Why not let his members decide whether to carry on the strike? Iker cited the BCTF's democratically elected Representative Assembly, which continues to support the strike.
Iker said binding arbitration is always an option, but stuck to his demand for continued talks with the government. One caveat: "We won't put our court victory in jeopardy."
'Christy Clark is running the show'
After the press conference, The Tyee talked with Iker, gaining a deeper look into the BCTF's thinking. Asked why he thought talking one on one with Christy Clark would do any good, Iker paused and then said: "Christy Clark is obviously running the show -- either she or Finance Minister Mike De Jong. We need to get a sense of where they're at. And we need movement on their side."
What about the $125 million Iker said the BCTF had withdrawn from its demands? He explained that the teachers' proposed $225 million fund was a serious proposal, intended to deal with grievances retroactively while both sides wait on the decision of the Court of Appeal. Agreeing to the proposal, Iker said, would be a way for the government to bring money to the table.
If the BCPSEA's proposal E.81 was such a show-stopper, why hadn't the BCTF made more of a fuss about it when it was introduced last June? "We talked about it at one or two news conferences. Then we got into the mediation process, and couldn't talk much."
And what about proposal E.80, another BCPSEA idea, which directly addresses class size and composition? It offered a "Learning Improvement Fund" of at least $75 million yearly for the five-year life of the contract. Teachers themselves would decide where the money should go. Iker pointed out that 20 percent of the LIF -- $15 million -- would be controlled by CUPE, not by the teachers. The proposal doesn't really deal effectively with class size issues.
Asked about rumours that a legislated return to work might include removing teachers' right to strike altogether, Iker said: "Legislated returns can be nasty. It won't surprise me if they do."
All the way to the Supreme Court of Canada?
And what if the Court of Appeal goes against the BCTF? "We would ask for leave to go to the Supreme Court of Canada." Given that two B.C. Supreme Court decisions have favoured the union, Iker figures the SCC would be willing to hear the case. He suspects Christy Clark's government, if it loses in the Court of Appeal, would do the same.
And if the BCTF were to lose in the SCC? "If we lose, we have no class limits in the contract and will have to bargain them."
In the short term, the Liberals will either go back on their promise not to legislate a return to work, or they will impose binding arbitration -- less likely if only because the arbitrator might demand more money and concessions that the government would like to give.
Neither side, however, has discussed the long-term implications of the dispute; the debate has been all about what people have done or not done recently, and what it might cost. Yet both sides must have thought for years about the costs of victory or defeat.
For the government, a permanent BCTF win in the courts must be the stuff of nightmares. To restore the contract of 2002 that the Liberals tore up would require the Liberals to spend hundreds of millions of dollars that they keep saying they don't have. That would mean either borrowing or taxing, and money spent on schools would not be available for LNG plants or other "economy-growing" projects.
Behind every great fortune...
Worse yet, the defeat would be a repudiation of Liberal governments ever since Gordon Campbell crushed the NDP in 2001. The French novelist Balzac observed, "Behind every great fortune there is a crime." Bills 27 and have twice been ruled unconstitutional, and so was their replacement, Bill 22 -- in effect, lawbreaking by those elected to uphold the law. Maybe Toronto Mayor Rob Ford can get away with that, but not one of the B.C. Liberals has Ford's oafish charm.
For the teachers, the prospect of defeat must strike at their very identity. A tenet of the profession is that inadequate teaching is bad teaching. Teachers don't talk about it much because they take the tenet for granted, just as doctors consider inadequate treatment to be bad treatment.
That is why they originally bargained to entrench class size and composition in their contract. The days are long gone when special-needs kids could be flunked out or kicked out. Every kid is a citizen and every kid deserves to be educated well.
So when teachers lost the right to bargain class size and composition, they lost the ability to teach as well as they could with the resources they need. Hand a surgeon a butter knife and tell her scalpels are too expensive, and see what reaction you get. But that's been the reaction teachers have felt every working day of their lives since 2002. Unable to function to the best of their ability, they've also been unable to bring out the very best in all their students.
As if that were not alienating enough, teachers have also been derided by successive Liberal governments as greedy, overpaid lazybones. Far from sitting down with Jim Iker, Christy Clark shrugged off the failure of mediation with four tweets -- not even a proper news release. (She also tried to drive a 140-character wedge between the BCTF and their public-service colleagues, "the 150,000 dedicated women and men who have reached long-term agreements with affordable raises.")
An Orwellian future
So defeat, for the teachers, raises the Orwellian prospect of the boot stamping on a human face forever: a hopelessly toxic workplace where education need not be done as long as it seems to be done when the premier shows up for a photo op.
Facing that prospect, many experienced B.C. teachers will simply retire at the first opportunity, or look for careers elsewhere in Canada or overseas. Their young replacements won't even have an institutional memory of education before 2002; they themselves will have been educated under the Liberal regime. But as long as they define themselves as very entertaining babysitters, they'll do fine.
Those, then, are the prospects B.C. faces for the foreseeable future -- at least until 2017 and likely much longer if the Supreme Court of Canada is to be the final arbitrator.