British Columbia·Analysis

B.C. teachers' strike: Could it have ended much sooner, asks Stephen Smart

There is no denying that a negotiated contract between the B.C. government and striking public school teachers is a good thing, but did it need to take three months?

There were plenty of missed opportunities on both sides to shorten or even avoid the strike

86% approve, accusations of wasted time on both sides 1:01

There is no denying that a negotiated contract between the provincial government and B.C.'s 41,000 public school teachers is a good thing. Given the track record, you could even call it historic.

This is just the third negotiated deal since province-wide bargaining came into being in 1994, but jubilation over a negotiated deal actually getting done is fading into the reality of whether the result was worth the price paid by both teachers and students.

It also begs some tough questions for both sides about why the dispute was allowed to drag on as long as it did: namely, how unrealistic expectations and an unwillingness to compromise, coupled with an inability to carry out rational negotiations, left 500,000-plus B.C. students and their parents in the lurch for five weeks of a complete school shutdown.

B.C. kids are going back to school next week, but they've missed out on roughly five weeks of class, spanning the end of last school year and the start of this one. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Bargaining began on Feb. 4, 2013. The next day, facilitator Mark Brown was selected by the union to assist the parties work out their differences. 

Yet, according to government, for more than a year, the B.C. Teachers' Federation (BCTF) didn't even put numbers on the table.

Documents from the B.C. Public School Employers' Association (BCPSEA) show it wasn't until March 7 of this year that the union came up with its first comprehensive salary proposal, asking for 13.5 per cent in wage increases.

Furthermore, the provincial government says it wasn't until June that the BCTF fully costed out its proposal.

It is not just the union being accused of wasting precious bargaining time: the Teachers' Federation points to the government's refusal to discuss any other issues until that wage and benefits piece was taken care of.

As a result, even smaller matters that might not have been as contentious were left to percolate and fester while the standoff on the bigger issues grew more intense.

Lines drawn in the chalk dust

As early as last spring, the two sides had cemented their positions.

The B.C. Liberal government made clear that it absolutely would not stray far from the basic contract formula already accepted by nearly half of other public sector workers.

The BCTF, on the other hand, made it equally clear that it would not accept a deal that didn't see an increase in funding for class size and conditions nor a deal that didn't protect its right to continue with its court fight with government.

Clearly, this was a product of the dysfunctional relationship between the parties that was at the centre of the dispute, fuelled partly by the court battle that’s raged for more than a decade.

After going back to the chalkboard several times, the BCTF and the BCPSEA ended up meeting in the middle. (Canadian Press)

As a result, students and parents had to endure five weeks of a full-scale school shutdown — not to mention teachers enduring five weeks without a paycheque, leaving them between $5,000 to $10,000 out of pocket, depending on each teacher's pay scale.

Some estimates suggest that even at the end of this six-year deal, some teachers will not have made up for the money lost while out on the picket lines.

And for what? In the end, this is arguably a deal that could have and should have been reached months ago.

They ended up meeting in the middle.

Government added $100 million to its learning improvement fund for a total of $400 million over five years, to hire as many as 850 new teachers each year.

Government also agreed to pay out $105 million in grievances, which the union is distributing as a signing bonus.

Plus, the government dropped the controversial E80 clause, which the union argued would nullify their victories in the class size and composition court case.

Although the government banked $160 million in savings from the June job action, by September the need for stepped-up public relations forced it to hand over any further savings to parents in the form of that $40-a-day childcare payout.

On the other side, teachers agreed to accept the same basic salary increases that other public sector workers did, although they did find a creative way to get a signing bonus out of the deal.

Essentially, both sides ended up doing what many observers were calling on them do back in the spring.

Have we learned anything from this labour dispute? Time will tell. The new teachers' contract will expire in 2019. (CBC)

Of course, you can argue that the conditions weren’t there for such a deal in May or June.

Teachers hadn’t yet gone without a paycheque. Students hadn’t yet missed any school, so there wasn’t the same pressure from parents to get a deal done, and government hadn’t yet started floating the possibility of legislating a new contract.

The two sides certainly had their reasons for distrust, given their history, and no one can suggest the relationship could have been fixed overnight.

We’ll find out if this deal has addressed any of those trust issues in 2019, when the contract expires.

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