VICTORIA - There's going to be a nasty shock this fall for parents who thought electing a Liberal government meant no school strikes.
Barring big change the battle between the BC Teachers' Federation and the government will lead to some sort of strike or job action this fall.
The campaign rhetoric left some people thinking that school strikes had been banned by the Liberals.
Not so. The Campbell government did change the law in 2002 to make education an essential service. But that doesn't mean an end to strikes.
It simple ensures that before a strike or lockout the Labour Relations Board must set essential service levels, just as in a health care dispute. Lawyers for both sides will make creative arguments about what essential means when it comes to schools, and the board will set out ground rules.
Parents won't like the results. The board has to ensure people who rely on the services aren't unduly harmed. But it also is bound to promote collective bargaining, so it sets essential service levels low enough that strikes still mean pain and an incentive for negotiations. (In the last BC Ferries job action, service on some routes to the Island was cut in half under the approved plan.)
Schools won't be open five days a week. Several districts have already gone to four-day school weeks to save money. If the government considered that acceptable, it will have a tough time arguing five days are now essential.
Two or three-day weeks, half days, combined classes, cancelled optional subjects - expect some or all of those to be part of the approved plan.
None of which will please parents. The reality is that we rely on schools for child care as well as education. For working parents, finding substitute child care will be costly, inconvenient and sometimes impossible. Businesses will be hit with higher absenteeism, and too young children will be fending for themselves.
None of this will last long. The Liberals, like the NDP government, will bring in legislation to end the strike, and ultimately impose a contract.
But it will still be a big disruption, and one that will leave some voters feeling betrayed.
Unless the union and the government find a way put aside their mutual contempt and come up with a solution that puts students first. (The union officially bargains with the BC Public School Employers' Association, but the association doesn't have the ability to address the key issues.)
So far, neither side seems willing to take the needed steps. Instead, the union and the government are fighting over issues that should be swept away.
The Liberals are all fired up about politics in the classroom, fretting about a BC Appeal Court decision giving teachers a right to talk about issues like class size in parent-teacher interviews, if they are relevant to the child. The reality is that this a non-problem. How many parents have complained after their eight-minute chat with a teacher?
And the BCTF is suing Gordon Campbell for defamation for his campaign claim that the union and the NDP had a secret plan to engineer a school strike last spring. Campbell went too far, but the case should be settled with an apology.
Even with the distractions pushed aside, it will be tough to reach an agreement. The government says the teachers must accept 0 and 0 in the first two years of the new contract, citing the wage freeze imposed just after they signed their last contract, which gave them 7.5 per cent over three years. Teachers want raises in all three years.
And the union wants a chance to negotiate class size limits and other working conditions, all previously negotiated terms of their contracts that the Liberals removed through legislation. That's not going to happen.
Both sides say they want to avoid disruption in the schools. But neither is doing much to head off the coming crash.
Footnote: There is a solution. The Wright report on teachers' bargaining completed last year outlined an alternative approach which acknowledges that teachers don't have a real right to strike, and substitutes conciliation and a form of arbitration. A future column will look at the risks and benefits of giving it a try now.