The school year appears increasingly unlikely to start on time, although early Tuesday evening the Ministry of Education confirmed a meeting is expected to take place Wednesday in Victoria between Education Minister Peter Fassbender, B.C. Teachers’ Federation president Jim Iker and the government’s negotiator Peter Cameron.
But it’s possible schools won’t be closed too far into September. A deal could be reached, or the employer could apply to the Labour Relations Board, arguing that essential service levels have been breached.
In September 2011, a Labour Relations Board decision written by Mark J. Brown found that schools could be closed for up to two weeks without “serious and immediate disruption to the provision of educational programs.” A similar ruling has not been sought in the current dispute.
Beyond two weeks, Brown ruled that disruption to education would vary depending on a student’s grade or the time of year in which the disruption occurred. But even at that point, he would allow teachers to strike one day a week, with their pay reduced accordingly.
A return to a partial strike is not completely out of the question — teachers in Vancouver were sent a survey asking if they supported continuing the full strike, moving to a rotating strike or returning to work under a work-to-rule regime. The B.C. Teachers’ Federation said many locals sent out a similar survey, but it would not disclose the results.
While a media blackout covers negotiations, there was speculation on social media that a B.C. Public School Employers’ proposal related to the court case might be holding up the bargaining process.
Part of the BCPSEA proposal E 81 states that “(w)ithin 60 days of the ultimate judicial decision, either party may give written notice to the other of termination of the collective agreement. If notice is given, the collective agreement terminates at the end of that school year, unless the ultimate judicial decision occurs after the end of February, in which case the termination takes place at the end of the following school year.”
When the proposal was introduced back in June, chief negotiator Peter Cameron and Public Service Employer’s Council representative Lee Doney said in a news conference that the clause was instituted as an interim solution until the B.C. Court of Appeal or the Supreme Court of Canada make their ruling.
“I think that’s a very pragmatic and creative way to deal with a problem that both parties are stuck on. It says, ‘Let’s put it on the back burner and when we see the ultimate decision we can decide whether we want to renegotiate from there,’” Doney said, according to a transcript of the news conference.
But Mark Thompson, professor emeritus of industrial relations at the University of B.C.’s Sauder School of Business, said the risk of this clause outweighs any benefit for the province’s 40,000 teachers.