VICTORIA - Expect trouble in schools this fall, unless the teachers' union and government are willing to try an already mapped out escape route.
The BC Teachers' Federation loathes the Liberal government, wants pay raises and is adamant about negotiating issues like class size.
The Liberal government loathes the BCTF, expects teachers to take a two-year wage freeze and says elected officials must decide issues like class size.
Teachers will take a strike vote Sept. 20-22, which will be overwhelmingly positive. The Labour Relations Board will then set essential service levels - perhaps a three-day school week - and eventually teachers will start job action. Parents will freak, and the government will pass legislation ordering teachers back to work and imposing a contract.
Surely it's time to try a better way, especially as the parties have a realistic alternative.
Last December Don Wright, a former deputy minister, prepared a report on teachers' bargaining for the government. Wright concluded that the current system doesn't work because it's built on a lie. Everyone, including the Liberals, pretend teachers have a right to strike. Really, no government will allow more than a brief school disruption before imposing a contract.
So there's little incentive to bargain. If the union thinks an NDP government might be sympathetic, it waits for an imposed deal; employers do the same when the Liberals are in power.
Wright proposed giving the two parties a set time to negotiate. If they were unsuccessful, a commissioner would be appointed to report publicly on each side's position. That should encourage reason; neither side would want to look like the problem. (Ideally, Wright said, the parties would agree on a commissioner; if not they could each submit names to an independent third party, who would pick one.)
The commissioner would then try to help the parties reach a deal. If that didn't work, the employer and union would both submit final positions on all the outstanding issues. The commissioner would pick one set in its entirety to form the basis of the new contract.
It's called final offer selection, and it's seen as a way to promote compromise. Take too extreme a position, and you lose everything. (Normal arbitration can encourage parties to stay far apart, hoping the arbitrator will split the difference in settling the dispute.)
Both sides can find fault with the idea.
Teachers are unhappy that Wright's proposal wouldn't let them bargain class size, support levels and other issues the Liberals stripped from their contracts through legislation.
Those issues do affect working conditions, which are normally negotiable, and teachers say they gave up past wage increases in return for smaller class sizes. But ultimately the issues are also about the best way of providing education, and that's a matter for elected officials.
Wright proposed a separate process that would bring teachers, school districts and the province together "to seek agreement on cost effective approaches to improving working and learning conditions." It's a compromise worth trying.
The government fears the commissioner would impose a deal that that would be too costly, or break the wage pattern that calls for no increase in the first two years of the teacher's contract.
That's a risk. Wright recommended that the commissioner have only two terms of reference in imposing a deal - the need for competitive pay and job conditions to ensure that good teachers want to work here, and the state of the economy and the government's finances. That leaves a lot of room.
Teachers also simply don't trust the government. The Liberals have ignored agreements they don't like. Why go to dispute resolution if only decisions that go against you will be recognized by the government?
But practically, the BCTF has nothing to lose. The realistic choices are a legislated agreement, on the government's terms, or a chance at the new approach. There's no downside.
It seems a perfect chance to try for a better way of resolving school labour disputes, one that really does put children first.
Footnote: The government hasn't ruled out trying the Wright way. A first step could be to appoint a commissioner early this fall to begin the process, preparing the public report on the parties' positions. That would encourage a move towards realistic, practical proposals from both sides.