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Teachers' dispute is a neverending soap opera

The B.C. Liberal government has largely shed the labour relations headaches it helped create when it first took power in 2001, with one glaring exception.

The B.C. Liberal government has largely shed the labour relations headaches it helped create when it first took power in 2001, with one glaring exception.

That would be its tumultuous, antagonistic and befuddling relationship with the union that represents B.C.'s public school teachers.

Watching the B.C. Teachers' Federation and the government engage in a seemingly never-ending struggle to determine who wields the power in schools and classrooms is akin to viewing a soap opera in which you're never really sure which character is in charge.

In recent years, the government has established an impressive record in negotiating collective agreements with a host of public sector unions, with rarely a peep of unrest and without draining the public treasury as well.

Not so its dealings with the BCTF, which have been characterized by strife, suspicion and almost a complete lack of success. The fractious relationship is played out in public, with dueling news conferences or protest rallies, and it's getting rather tiresome.

Yet here we go again.

The government and the union are on yet another collision course, which will almost certainly end in a way that pleases neither party. The gap between the two sides on so many issues is so vast, it will take a miracle to close it - and it would involve shifting hundreds of millions of dollars from one side to another.

As I write this, the union is looking for a salary increase of almost 16 per cent (compounded) over four years, while the government is offering over seven per cent over six years. Given that a one per cent pay hike is the equivalent to about $25 million, that's a gap of about $75 million a year, and that doesn't include an improved benefit package and other improvements the BCTF is looking for.

On the important issues of class size and class composition, the union is seeking a return to contract language and staffing levels that were in place in 2002. That would cost about $300 million a year over what is currently spent, while the government is offering to top up its Learning Improvement Fund by $75 million this year. The gap: about $225 million.

Add it up and the difference between the two sides' position is a whopping $300 million, and as I noted, this does not include a raft of other expensive items.

But deeply embedded in this dispute (well, actually, the never ending dispute) is something that appears to cripple any chance of a successful, negotiated outcome: a mistrust and a lack of respect of each other.

The government poisoned the well when it arbitrarily stripped language governing class sizes from the collective agreement back in 2002 and things have never really got back on track ever since.

The union has won two court challenges on this one issue, and the government won't give up the fight and is appealing the ruling to a higher court (and depending on who wins there, the loser will no doubt try to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada).

The BCTF doesn't exactly have clean hands in this little ongoing drama either.  I find teachers, for the most part, to be a passionate, committed bunch (many dip into their own pockets to pay for their students'  needs, including food) but their union is another story.

It is an ideologically hidebound organization that doesn't really fit into a labour relations model, which makes its efforts at collective bargaining feeble and ineffective at times.

Unlike other public sector unions, it refuses to take into account the government's fiscal position or ability to pay and exhibits an often maddening sense of entitlement, as if the interests of its membership trumps everything else public tax dollars fund.

But it has also proven to be a resilient foe of the B.C. Liberal government and has tripped it up on more than one occasion.

It may not win at the negotiating table very often, but it has posted big victories in court and at the Labour Relations Board.

When both sides won't trust or respect each other, they make mistakes and misread each other's moves.

That's been happening in the current breakdown, even though bargaining continues (without much progress being made, it seems).

This current contract impasse may be headed for a legislated resolution, or perhaps if the two sides can get at least a little closer to each other's position some kind of meaningful mediation can take place.

In any event, until a mutual trust and respect finds its way into the picture, we're going to see a replay of the current melodrama as soon as the next contract expires.

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global B.C.