VICTORIA - You got a pretty good indication of why Premier Gordon Campbell and the government are losing the battle with teachers Monday.
The demonstration on the legislature lawn was impressive, certainly one of the largest of the last several years.
But it wasn't just the size.
I ran into a former co-worker, a semi-retired sales manager who valued individual enterprise and I am sure has never voted NDP in his life. He looked a little sheepish, or uncomfortable. "I never though I'd be at one of these things," he said, looking around at the signs and cheering crowd.
But his wife is a teacher, and against all odds and inclinations, he was part of the protest.
The government has badly misjudged the public's attitude in this dispute.
It has been a surprise. People generally don't support illegal strikes. The rule of law is important, and the public rightly expects it to apply to everyone.
But the teachers have proved an exception, an indication that the public believes they have been treated unfairly by the government.
It's a reality the Liberals have not accepted.
As the protesters got organized for the march, Campbell launched a pre-emptive strike by press conference.
It would have been a good time for something new, something that addressed the public perception of unfairness and the teachers' issues.
But Campbell stuck with the hard line. No talks of any kind as long as the strike continues. No new incentives to end the strike, not even the tiny kind of concessions that could let the BC Teachers' Federation consider a tactical retreat.
"This is not a labour dispute, as this illegal action has been characterized by some unions," Campbell said. "This is a question of law and how to move forward." That means the government has no obligation to talk with teachers until they quit breaking the law.
But it is a labour dispute, despite the premier's wishful thinking. It's about wages and working conditions, and the right of people to form a union and bargain.
The dispute is also about the law, and public opinion, and politics. But it's a fantasy to pretend there aren't real issues.
What's needed is the ability to accept reality. Unions have staged illegal strikes before, and it makes employers furious. Most figure they have to live with the law, and the union should too. It's an entirely understandable frustration.
But employers recognize that the courts can handle the legal questions. The BC Supreme Court has all the tools needed to ensure Jinny Sims and the union are held accountable, and the full mandate to enforce the law. The government - like other employers - can safely step back. The courts don't like being treated contemptuously.
And smart employers keep lines of communication open, and are available for talks.
Not just the private sector. The law around charging unions with criminal contempt for illegal strikes was shaped by a 1992 Supreme Court of Canada decision on a strike by Alberta nurses.
The court upheld the principle that that unions could face criminal contempt charges.
But reading the background is interesting. Alberta's Conservative government charged the union with criminal contempt of court when it struck in 1988. But on the same day, it appointed a mediator to help resolve the dispute.
While the nurses' union was appearing in court, the government named a second conciliator. Talks continued.
The Alberta government response recognized that the courts could deal with the lack of respect for the law. The employer's dominant interest was in getting nurses - or in this case teachers - back to work on acceptable terms.
That's a challenge. Sims says the union will bend, but its track record isn't good.
Still the government's obligation - like any employer - is to solve the problem. It may be deeply troubled by the union's illegal strike, but it should be more troubled that kids are out of school.
This dispute has already cost more than four million pupil days - more than were lost in 10 years under the NDP.
That should be the government's main concern.
Footnote: Special prosecutor Len Doust, appointed Monday, is going slow on criminal contempt charges. Teachers would have to be seen as challenging the rule of the courts; SIms has been careful to say that the union's fight is with the government, not the courts. It's no excuse, but it could save the union from the toughest penalties.