Parents with children in public schools have reason to be anxious.
Although negotiators for striking B.C. teachers and the provincial government say that they’re talking, there’s not much time left before the school year starts.
Not even the chair of the Vancouver school board knows for sure if classrooms will be full or empty on September 2.
“I’m hearing from a lot of parents who are just really frustrated with so much uncertainty,” Patti Bacchus told the Georgia Straight by phone.
Bacchus was interviewed on August 14, the same day that the B.C. Teachers’ Federation and the B.C. Public School Employers’ Association jointly announced that mediator Vince Ready is available until “later in August” to assist them.
According to her, the VSB has not yet determined a cutoff date to declare that classrooms will remain closed after Labour Day if no agreement is reached soon. However, Bacchus noted that the labour dispute has affected preparations for the new school year.
“To be frank, we’re already behind because of the way the school year ended,” she said. “A lot of the preparations for September, in terms of classroom organization and timetabling and staffing and even these things like textbook sorting and returning, those things didn’t happen in many cases.”
Bacchus explained that preparations for the new school year typically start in the spring. A lot happens in June, toward the end of the current school year. “In some schools, some of that was done, but not all,” Bacchus said.
Meanwhile, the school district has been busy with facilities maintenance and upgrading over the summer, according to Bacchus.
Teachers, who have been without a new contract since last year, began phased job action in March. In May, the government imposed a partial lockout. Teachers began a full-scale strike on June 17, which shut down schools two weeks ahead of schedule.
“What we may see is a later start, a delay in getting students really settled to their timetables and classes,” Bacchus said.
Bacchus mentioned that she’s hearing that the government is likely to implement its plan to give parents $40 a day per child under the age of 13 for childcare if schools do not open on September 2.
“If the government is actually putting money and time into that, I think that’s ominous—that they don’t expect to be back,” Bacchus said. “It worries me that that’s where their focus is, instead of focusing on putting everything into an effort to resolve this dispute.”
Labour relations expert Mark Thompson doesn’t doubt that like any other dispute, the ongoing fight between teachers and the province will end. “The question is when and how,” Thompson told the Straight in a phone interview.
The professor emeritus at UBC’s Sauder School of Business expects the government to make some concessions on class size and composition.
“I would say, ‘We’re prepared to move somewhat in your direction but not a lot. Not enough that it’s gonna embarrass us with all the other unions and to cause the province to move into deficit,’ ” said Thompson, role-playing chief government negotiator Peter Cameron.
Class size and composition are the main issues that the two parties have fought over since 2002. That year, the B.C. Liberal government of the day, with Christy Clark as education minister, stripped these working conditions from the teachers’ contract through Bill 28.
According to the BCTF, $275 million in funding per year has been cut from the education system since class-size limits and staffing-level requirements in classrooms with special-needs students were removed.
Bill 28 was declared unconstitutional by the B.C. Supreme Court in April 2011, a month after Clark was sworn in as premier. Given one year by the court to pass new legislation, the province enacted Bill 22, which was virtually identical to the previous law. That too was deemed unconstitutional by the same judge who ruled on Bill 28, Susan Griffin.
In her January 27, 2014, judgment, Griffin concluded that the government did not negotiate in good faith with the BCTF after the Bill 28 decision.
“One of the problems was that the government representatives were pre-occupied by another strategy,” Griffin wrote. “Their strategy was to put such pressure on the union that it would provoke a strike by the union. The government representatives thought this would give government the opportunity to gain political support for imposing legislation on the union.”
According to Thompson, back-to-work legislation remains an option for the province. As far as teachers are concerned, they will have to decide if it’s worth taking a chance on what happens in the legislature, he said.
The legislative assembly is scheduled to resume sitting on October 6. Over a week later, the B.C. Court of Appeal will begin hearings on the government’s appeal of Griffin’s ruling regarding Bill 22.
Thompson doesn’t anticipate the government will withdraw its appeal as a “point of honour”.
“The judge found that they bargained in bad faith because they kind of wanted a strike,” Thompson said. “Any employer that wants a strike can get one. It’s not hard.”