Half a million B.C. students are facing the second week of the new school year without classes after the government rejected the teachers' offer of binding arbitration to settle the dispute.
In a surprise move, the B.C. Teachers' Federation (BCTF) offered binding arbitration Friday and called for a third party to help bring the dispute to an end.
But in an emailed statement late Saturday, Education Minister Peter Fassbender said his chief negotiator, Peter Cameron, had recommended against accepting the offer.
"I agree," said Fassender. "After due diligence and further investigation, it became very clear that it was another empty effort to give parents and teachers a false hope that there is a simple way to resolve the dispute."
Fassbender said the union made it clear at a meeting yesterday it would insist on several preconditions that would "effectively tilt the entire process in the BCTF's favour."
"Despite several efforts by Mr. Cameron, and more than a day later, the B.C. Public School Employers' Association still doesn’t have a written proposal from the BCTF," he said.
BCTF responded Saturday, saying it will continue to keep the option for arbitration open.
"It is a fair, workable and pragmatic plan to end the strike, open schools and get children back into classrooms," said union president Jim Iker. "It remains the fastest and most fair way to resolve the dispute and end the strike."
Iker went on to say the "government continued to put their own political objectives ahead of B.C.'s public education system."
Fassbender accused the union leadership of avoiding the tough conversations with its members about "what is realistic and achievable" to help bring an end to the dispute.
Ending the dispute was very much on the minds of the hundreds of teachers and their supporters as they rallied in downtown Vancouver Friday night to mark the end of the first week of the new school year without students and teachers in class.
Vancouver teacher Debbie Sunnus stood out among the music and signs at Canada Place — clad in judicial robes, a white wig and wielding a gavel, symbolic of B.C. Supreme Court rulings that found the province had illegally stripped teachers' earlier contracts of the right to include class size and composition in collective bargaining.
"One of these days it would be wonderful to wake up and have a minister of education respectful of our work," she told a reporter.
Parent Annemarie Tempelman Kluit says it's been a scramble to find camps for kids which have been filling up fast. She says the $40-a-day the government is offering parents doesn't cover the full cost of most camps.
Kluit, founder of yoyomama, a website for Vancouver mothers, says these are stressful times for many parents.
"I booked a camp this week, and then as things progressed I booked a camp next week and we're on like three waiting lists because everything is booked for the rest of September," she said.
Kluit says when the strike-lockout started in June, she was "possibly more on one side than the other," but now she says, like most parents, she just wants it to end.
"Neither side is acting particularly well frankly. I have this parent who is like you know if this were kids misbehaving, I'd want a time-out or they'd have to talk-it-out together, but there's nothing parents can do so it's very frustrating."
BCTF makes first move
On Friday, the BCTF made the first move in what has become a showdown of wills, proposing binding arbitration to settle the dispute. Under this proposal, the union and the government would make their case, then a third party, like a professional arbitrator or a judge, would have the final say on who-gets-what.
Under Iker's proposal teachers and students would be back in class even before a final deal is reached. The union would also agree to delay most of its demands around class size and composition until after the end of the ongoing court case—the dispute's other major stumbling block.
But government was very cool to the idea from the beginning.
Fassbender said Friday that he has never been a fan of binding arbitration.
"I don't think anyone in the labour relations field feels that that is a vehicle that really serves the interests of all parties." The last time the B.C. government went through binding arbitration in a major labour dispute was 2001. B.C. doctors were awarded almost $400 million in raises and the provincial sales tax had to be raised to pay for it.
The Opposition isn't buying that argument. The NDP says it's about spending priorities.
"They can reallocate finances in a $44-billion budget with a $750-million contingency fund, said NDP Leader John Horgan. "That's a red herring that's designed to frustrate negotiations."
With the two sides still seemingly far apart from any meaningful consensus, parents can only watch, wait and hope as they brace for another week of no school for their kids.