Hard lesson

A week before school is supposed to start, Prince George public school teachers were back on the job Monday.

Unfortunately, their job since the middle of June has been to walk on picket lines, instead of teaching children.

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As Vaughn Palmer of the Vancouver Sun has rightly pointed out, the Liberals have not scheduled MLAs to return from their summer recess until the first week of October. In other words, if the teachers are still out then, the Christy Clark government will finally legislate them back to work. Until then, Victoria has made it crystal clear it will not bend one iota on any of the demands from the B.C. Teachers Federation. If teachers want to go back to work before then, their union will have to capitulate to every single one of the government's demands.

While it is encouraging that veteran mediator Vince Ready is willing to step in and broker a deal, until he's fully engaged at the table, he's as much a bystander as the parents of school-aged children. But there's no role for him to play at this slaughter.

In the first season of the popular Netflix drama House of Cards, the ruthless congressman Frank Underwood defeats a national teachers strike with some shady tactics but even he would have something to learn from the way the Liberals have played the BCTF.

Get the teachers to go on strike, rather than having to lock them out.

Check.

Get them out on strike even though their union only has two days worth of strike pay in the bank for its members.

Check.

Get them out on strike for the last two weeks of June when parents are too busy planning summer holidays to care if their kids get to go on another field trip or a morning to the park to wrap up the school year.

Check.

Get them out on strike early in the second year of a four-year governing mandate, so voters, except for teachers and a handful of parents, will have long forgotten about the strike by the time they head back to the polls in May 2017.

Check.

Show complete disdain for teachers and their union, bargain through the news media, and ignore two previous court rulings.

Check.

Only now is the full scope of the Liberal agenda becoming clear. The teachers came to the bargaining table looking for a new contact, with wage increases and more spending on classroom support, as well as for the Liberals to make good on those court rulings by bargaining in good faith.

The Liberals came to the table with a much simpler strategy.

Break the union.

It was never about the kids or about education. It wasn't even about winning.

It was about administering a crushing defeat in the most humiliating fashion possible.

The government's tactics were also simple. Besides the moves laid out above, the Clark regime isolated the BCTF by cutting deals with various other public sector unions for five years with 5.5 per cent increases, which included clauses that say that increases any other public sector union gets also apply. The Liberals now own the high ground and can say with a straight face that kids would be in school if it weren't for the greedy teachers who feel they are more deserving than their brothers and sisters working for government.

Neither the other public sector unions nor the NDP are going to war for the BCTF. Other than respecting picket lines, the rest of the public sector has been mostly silent on the strike by teachers. Meanwhile, new NDP leader John Horgan has harumphed about the unfair treatment of teachers but he's busy trying to convince the electorate that the NDP is more than just the political wing of the province's major unions. Picking this hill to die on, particularly so early in his leadership, would just reinforce the stereotype that the NDP and its leader ask "how high?" when the bosses of the big unions tell them to jump.

Years from now, this dispute will be seen as a textbook case of how a government can bring a powerful public sector union to its knees with a devastating combination of savvy political moves and dirty pool.

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