Stop me if you think you've seen this play before.

The B.C. Teachers' Federation and the B.C. government sit down to negotiate a contract. The two sides are miles apart on demands.

Negotiations go nowhere and after a contentious period of sniping at each other in the media, job action ensues.

Then after a short period of school disruptions, teachers agree to a deal or, more often, have a contract imposed on them through legislation.

It's a textbook example of a dysfunctional bargaining relationship that neither side seems willing or able to fix.

Sadly, it has also been the script for teacher–government relations in B.C. ever since teachers got the right to strike and full collective bargaining in 1987.

So it's not surprising that the current Liberal government thought it was following the same script when this round of contract talks began last year.

Except the dynamics have changed.

Sure, the rhetoric sounds the same, and the players have all played their roles as expected.

The government accuses the teachers of being out of touch and the BCTF accuses the government of shortchanging students and not bargaining in good faith.

But the motivation behind the job action that is being taken by teachers this time is different.

Court battles galvanize teachers' resolve

Peter Fassbender

B.C. Education Minister Peter Fassbender says he's very disappointed by the teachers' decision to strike. (CBC)

Yes, they want wage and benefit increases, roughly 20 per cent over four years according to government.

And, as is often the case, the amount is out of line with what many taxpayers would consider reasonable, given today's economy and compared to agreements with other public sector workers that have already been made.

But a decade of court battles over government stripping away their right to bargain on issues of class size and composition — which teachers have won every time — has galvanized teachers' resolve. 

It was just this past January that the B.C. Supreme Court ruled that not only had government violated teachers’ constitutional rights in removing this aspect of bargaining, but had repeated that violation when it imposed new legislation meant to fix the original law.

So with all that top of mind, at this point, wages and salary demands are taking a backseat to the desire for changes in the classroom.

The teachers want smaller classes and firm rules around how many special needs students can be in a single class before the school has to provide extra teachers and supports.

They also want government and the public to recognize that per-student funding has fallen behind most of the other provinces.

According to Statistics Canada, B.C. spends just under $12,000 per student per year, the second lowest in Canada.

And there is the sticking point.

Teachers want classroom concerns resolved

Jim Iker

BCTF President Jim Iker says their hope the government would start negotiating in good faith has faded. (CBC)

In past disputes, the BCTF has talked about these issues, but in the end the lure of more money for individual teachers— and in 2006, a $3700 signing bonus — forced the union to accept a deal without resolving those classroom concerns.

That's what the government obviously thought would happen again this time when it revealed its $1,200 signing bonus offer last week.

But it was not to be. At this point, teachers are taking a stand on principle — or at least that is what they say. Holding out not only for more money, but for those classroom changes as well.

All of this spells bad news for anyone hoping for a speedy resolution to this dispute.

Not only are the teachers' demands around classroom conditions expensive for taxpayers, but they also hit at the heart of an ideological dispute that's kept these two sides apart for decades.

That is, the question of who should control B.C.'s education system — the 41,000 or so teachers running it, or the government elected by those paying for it?

It's a question that both sides have shown can't be negotiated and that the courts have ruled can't be legislated either.

So as long as this fundamental argument remains the sticking point, students and parents should brace themselves to remain in the middle of a lengthy fight.