RICHMOND, B.C. — A tentative deal has been reached in the British Columbia teachers’ strike.
The breakthrough in negotiations came early Tuesday morning, on the fifth day of talks at a Richmond, B.C., hotel between the union and the employers’ association with the help of mediator Vince Ready.
Negotiations resumed last week under increasing pressure from the public and suggestions by the government that legislating an end to the dispute was an option.
Last Wednesday, the B.C. Teachers’ Federation voted overwhelmingly to end their dispute if the government agreed to binding arbitration — something the government firmly rejected.
Teachers launched full-scale job action two weeks before the summer break and students have missed more than two weeks of their new school year.
The federation and B.C. governments — no matter what political affiliation — have a decades-long history of animosity and difficult labour disputes.
More than 40,000 teachers in the province have been without a contract since June 2013 and class size and composition have been major stumbling blocks in the dispute.
Last January, a B.C. Supreme Court judge ruled the provincial government violated teachers’ rights in 2002 when it declared they could no longer negotiate the size of classes or the number of support staff in classrooms. The province is appealing that decision.
But in an attempt to get movement at the bargaining table, the union began escalating stages of labour action in April.
About two weeks before the end of the last school year, teachers launched a full-scale walkout.
The teachers’ union and the government’s bargaining team barely spoke during the summer, and at the end of July, Finance Minister Mike de Jong announced the B.C. government would pay parents $40 a day for every child 12 and under if the teachers’ strike continued into the start of the school year.
Veteran mediator Vince Ready agreed to make himself available in mid-August, but he walked away from the bargaining table Aug. 30, saying the two sides were just too far apart.
Schools remained closed Sept. 2 for half a million B.C. students.
The next day, Premier Christy Clark weighed into the dispute, saying no one wanted to see schools closed because of the ongoing teachers’ strike, but the government had to stand firm or the labour dispute would never end.
Union president Jim Iker called on Sept. 5 for binding arbitration, saying it was the only solution available to get the dispute settled.
Education Minister Peter Fassbender panned the idea hours later. He said the province had a bad experience with the process once before, referring to a costly dispute with B.C. doctors more than a decade ago.
Later that evening, teachers rallied in downtown Vancouver, reiterating Iker’s call for binding arbitration.
Fassbender explained Sept. 6 why he rejected the proposal. He said government negotiator Peter Cameron had advised against it, and added the offer was not serious and would not guarantee an end to the strike.
The teachers’ union made the next move on Sept. 8, announcing its members would vote on binding arbitration.
One day before that vote, de Jong announced an expected $266 million financial surplus for the provincial government’s first financial quarter but he declined to use the funds to settle the teachers’ dispute.
Unions from across Canada announced last Wednesday, the day of the teachers’ vote, they had pledged millions of dollars of donations and loans for a hardship fund for B.C.’s teachers.
The teachers’ union announced that night results of the vote. Of the 30,699 teachers who cast ballots, 99.4 per cent voted to end the strike through binding arbitration.
Fassbender softened his stand last Thursday towards legislating teachers back to work and said legislation was another option available to government. Premier Christy Clark also said she was determined to get a deal before she leaves on a trade mission to India on Oct. 9, three days after the legislature resumes.
On Friday, the union confirmed its and the government’s bargaining teams had begun negotiations and both sides spent the weekend in marathon discussions inside a hotel in Richmond, B.C.