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Les Leyne: Government content to wait out strike

There’s a lot of strategizing behind the government’s startling warning this week that it has no intention at this point of legislating teachers back to work in September. More specifically, the current position is that if the deadlock with the B.C.

There’s a lot of strategizing behind the government’s startling warning this week that it has no intention at this point of legislating teachers back to work in September.

More specifically, the current position is that if the deadlock with the B.C. Teachers’ Federation continues, the government will not recall the house to pass back-to-work legislation for September. (October might be a different matter.)

That’s a dramatic change from the age-old position that the education system is an essential service that must function come hell or high water. Every full work stoppage going back years has almost automatically prompted the government to rush in a back-to-work law. This time around, it’s playing out differently.

Premier Christy Clark said the government is not content to let the dispute simmer. But that was just a platitude delivered during a media scrum. A more detailed account of the government’s position was delivered by Finance Minister Mike de Jong this week. And the short version is that yes, the government is indeed prepared to let the impasse simmer. Because legislated contracts just don’t work, he said.

He suggested there’s now an expectation of back-to-work legislation that actually plays into bargaining dynamics and works against deals.

So the cabinet held off during the last ludicrous month of the school year, which featured rotating strikes, lockouts, a unilateral pay cut, a full strike and even the first-ever mandatory don’t-work order from government. Given what a farce it was, the remarkable aspect was that there was no noticeable, concerted public uproar.

Noting the chances of ongoing disruption, de Jong said: “I know who feels the pain — it’s the students and families.”

But they seem to bear it well, so the government will take a chance they’ll cope into the next school year as well.

It looks as if part of the reasoning is the hardball tactic of starving the teachers into submission. They’re down about three weeks pay based on the June fiasco. And based on the astonishing revelation that there was next to nothing in the BCTF’s strike fund, they won’t be getting any paycheques from the union. The showdown was more than a year in the making, but the union suspended strike pay ($50) after three days because it ran out of money. That’s despite an annual revenue stream of tens of millions of dollars.

The BCTF puts a lot more emphasis on ad campaigns than it does on maintaining pickets’ incomes.

Then again, they never needed a fund because up till now they’ve always been forced back to work.

So losing a couple of more paycheques in September will start to hit some families hard. (Disclosure: Mine included.)

The other thing at play in the government’s current hands-off policy is its batting average when it does step up to the plate.

As called by the B.C. Supreme Court, the B.C. Liberals are 0 for 2 on the most critical recent interventions.

The 2002 contract rewrite was rejected when it finally made its way to the court years later. And the government’s makeup effort in 2012 was condemned in even stronger language from the bench last January.

The judge declared the government negotiated in bad faith and was secretly trying to provoke a full strike for its own political advantage.

That decision is under appeal, but the Liberals must be wondering what a judge would do to them if they take a third run at the union, given all that’s gone before. No wonder they’re a little gun-shy.

With half the public sector now signed to contracts under the same modest mandate, de Jong wondered if the BCTF understands the importance the government attaches to treating everyone fairly. He said you can’t hammer out deals with everyone and then give one group more because they “make a little more noise.”

It looks as if they’re content to wait for that understanding to dawn.

De Jong recited the usual hope that the BCTF will do what most other unions have done and settle.

“But I know this: If September comes along and that hasn’t happened, it would be a mistake to assume the government is going to rush into the legislative assembly to impose an agreement,” he said.

lleyne@timescolonist.com