British Columbia·Analysis

B.C. teachers' strike: After a wasted summer, stalemate rules

Instead of working on a compromise, something to allow both parties to save face and achieve some of their goals, the government and the B.C. Teachers' Federation are both waiting for the other side to blink, Stephen Smart writes.

Students and parents wait to see who will blink first

Some students chant 'we want school' outside Premier Christy Clark's MLA office in West Kelowna, B.C., on Tuesday morning, as part of the #MLAplaydate protest. (Brady Strachan/CBC)

It was anything but a productive summer in the dispute between striking B.C. teachers and the provincial government.

Rather than using July and August to cool down and figure a way out of the current bargaining stalemate, both sides solidified their positions, stepped up the rhetoric and — aside from some exploratory talks with mediator Vince Ready — are in pretty much the same place they were at the end of June.

Instead of working on a compromise, something to allow both parties to save face and achieve some of their goals, the government and the B.C. Teachers' Federation are both waiting for the other side to blink.

Education Minister Peter Fassbender and B.C. Teachers' Federation President Jim Iker. The two sides in the B.C. teachers' dispute are involved in a standoff that has them too far apart for mediation and unlikely to agree on binding arbitration. (CBC)

That means students are in the same place as well: not in school, with no sign of change anytime soon.

To make matters worse, neither side appears to have an exit plan.

Unfortunately, blinking or backing down are what the union and government are both equally determined not to do.

A number of analysts have suggested binding arbitration as a way out. Used often in sports contract disputes, the idea would be for both sides to make their case to an independent arbitrator and then be willing to accept whatever ruling he or she makes.

With respect to those suggesting arbitration, it just won’t happen. 

Even if the union agreed to the move, which they haven’t, the provincial government would never allow control over so much tax money to be taken out of political hands.

      1 of 0

      The Christy Clark Liberals campaigned on a promise to balance the budget and keep B.C. out of deficits. So why would they then allow an independent arbitrator the power to impose a deal that could very well push the provincial books into the red?

      The last time the province did that was in 2001, when a dispute over pay rates for B.C. doctors was handed over to arbitration. The result was an expensive ruling in the doctors’ favour and a major bill for taxpayers. The government dealt with that bill by raising the provincial sales tax to pay for it, and it has not agreed to binding arbitration since.

      Premier's involvement could inflame things more

      Some are also calling on Premier Christy Clark to get personally involved in the dispute.

      But that ignores the fact that the premier’s office controls pretty much everything that happens in government. So although Clark has not been at the bargaining table, the position put forward by the government ultimately comes from her.

      Six-year-old La Wren Konge studies up on dinosaurs while trying out her new classroom in her family's living room in Vancouver, B.C. The ongoing B.C. teachers' strike has forced parents of public school children across B.C. to make alternate back-to-school plans. (CBC)

      And given the history between the two sides — dating back to Clark’s time as education minister, when she led the now-deemed unconstitutional charge against class size/composition rules — her presence would not be a calming one.

      It would likely just inflame the situation further, as evidenced by Clark’s comments on Twitter and Facebook over the past few days.

      So where does that leave the dispute and the search for a resolution?  Unfortunately, nowhere positive.

      The government is not going to stray far from the settlement formula that roughly 150,000 public sector workers have already agreed to.

      Likewise, the BCTF has now won two court rulings that found the government acted illegally in prohibiting teachers from bargaining on issues of class size and composition limits, so they won’t back down from new contract language that restores those elements back to where they were.

      Hence the stalemate that has schools still shuttered on what was supposed to be the first day of the new school year. 

      There is little optimism and little hope of a quick resolution to get kids back into classrooms. Just two very polarized sides equally determined to wait for the other to give in.

      About the Author

      Stephen Smart

      B.C. Politics

      Stephen Smart is the legislative bureau chief in British Columbia for CBC News.


      To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

      By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.