Jim Iker admits he's an optimist.
Gazing into his bright-side-of-life crystal ball, the chief negotiator for the B.C. Teachers Federation has yet to envision any handshakes across the bargaining table, but at least this time around it appears no ominous storms are brewing in that globe.
"I don't know if it's going to be any easier but I always go into things with a positive view," said Iker. "We come to it with a positive frame, despite what went on last year, and we're hoping we're able to come to an agreement."
The history of teacher bargaining in B.C. is pockmarked by strikes and labour disruptions. Since provincial bargaining was established in 1994, replacing a system of local teacher unions bargaining directly with their own school boards, only two teacher contracts -- in 1998 and 2006 -- have been settled through collective bargaining. Money talks, as Iker says, and he'll soon find out if there's any more in the provincial coffers to offer teachers.
"Collective bargaining is about compromise and having the ability to actually negotiate an agreement and, of course, one aspect of any settlement is resources," said Iker.
"One part of the problem last round was there were absolutely no resources nor any desire on the employers' part to talk about any kind of resources, whether it be towards class size and composition, staffing ratios, salary or preparation time. That sets up a system that moves towards failure."
The BCTF has stated teacher bargaining structures have to be improved to have any hope of a negotiated settlement and has requested the province appoint a facilitator agreeable to both sides who would get involved early in bargaining process. Iker also said the union wants to have local bargaining on some non-monetary issues restored.
To try to fix the system before bargaining resumes in March, Education Minister Don McRae announced a plan in October to consult with key education stakeholders such as school trustees, school administrators and parent groups.
"The BCTF is obviously a major player in this and we also have make sure we consult with our other stakeholders like the trustees," said McRea. "The co-governance piece is really important so we have lots of conversations to go forward with but I think you'll see some [progress] coming out in the near future.
"We took what the BCTF had to offer [in preliminary talks] very seriously. Can we come up with a framework that is going to get a deal there that's good for teachers, good for students, and good for educators. It's not about a lose-lose here, we're talking about win-win system where the education doesn't have to go through this angst every three or four years, like it's been doing in the last 20."
The BCTF has a B.C. Supreme Court date set for September to state its case against Bill 22 legislation introduced in March, which imposed a two-year contract on teachers and made it illegal for them to continue their strike action. The union wants the court to reinstate provisions on classroom composition that under the previous contract made it standard practice for teachers with more than three students with individual education plans (IEP) to receive additional instruction help from teaching assistants and will also push for reductions on upper limits of class sizes. Removal of collective bargaining provisions stripped from the teachers' contract in 2002 was ruled unconstitutional in April 2011, but were written back into Bill 22.
Another wrinkle that could affect progress of the talks is the provincial election in May.
"If there's an ability to reach an agreement before the election, that's always a possibility," said Iker. "But we also know that during that election period there probably won't be any bargaining happening."
The current two-year contract for 41,000 teachers working in K-12 schools expires on June 30. After two years without wage hikes, Iker said teachers are seeking increases to at least keep pace with inflation, which would bring B.C. salaries closer to the levels of other provinces.
Premier Christy Clark suggested there's reason to hope for a 10-year contract settlement in the next round of negotiations. While McRae will push for a long-term deal once talks resume, Iker considers a 10-year pact "unrealistic" for both sides.
McRae sent a letter to all school boards in early December asking them to try to find enough savings in existing budgets to fund a 1.5 per cent wage hike to offer support staff now in the process of negotiating a two-year collective agreement. School District 57 trustees responded with a return letter which basically told McRae their school resources are already stretched to the limit and no possibility of any savings being turned over to the government.
"The fact is there are no new dollars for contracts out there, but I did want to make sure we asked the school districts to find some efficiencies like we've asked every other sector, to see if we could find some co-operative gains opportunities for the CUPE negotiations going forward," McRae said.