The provincial government is so far holding off on a threat to try to force the B.C.Teachers' Federation to pay $5 million a month to cover the cost of its members' benefits in response to their limited job action.
That possible financial weapon was broached earlier in the month by negotiators with the B.C. Public School Employers' Association and Education Minister Peter Fassbender said it remains an option, particularly if the union escalates its tactics.
"The BCTF has said they're taking this action to put pressure on us," Fassbender said Thursday in an interview. "We may need to add some commensurate pressure to the BCTF if we find we're not getting any solid options from them."
The union has demanded pay hikes estimated at 13.5 per cent over three years, while the government has offered 6.5 per cent over the first six years of an intended 10-year deal.
Fassbender said the BCTF has made some movement in negotiations, but not a significant amount.
He expressed disappointment that despite continued talks the union opted Wednesday to begin its first-stage strike action – restricting administrative duties and supervision of students outside of class time – a move that has prompted several rural districts to cancel recess.
The BCPSEA had notified the union any strike action could trigger a call for it to cover health and welfare benefits for B.C.'s 40,000 teachers, estimated at $5 million a month.
"I don't want to inflict pain on anybody," Fassbender said. "But there are tools available to government as there are to the union.
"I don't think we want to put out any threats but by the same token we need to ensure that we have stability in the classrooms. That's our goal."
BCTF president Jim Iker said he doubts the Labour Relations Board would approve a request ordering the union to pay benefits, noting a similar effort to make the union pay 15 per cent of wages was denied in the last teachers' strike.
"We would see that as retaliatory and punitive for them to even think about or threaten that the union pay the cost of the benefits when teachers are in the classroom working as hard as they normally do with students," Iker said.
Iker said it is the government that has not moved much off its position, including a refusal to bargain smaller class sizes and more access to specialist teachers.
"Our hope is we can get this deal done by the end of June and not be going into September still at the bargaining table."
Overshadowing the labour dispute is last year's B.C. Supreme Court ruling that the province must restore class size and composition to what existed in 2001.
The province has appealed the decision, saying it would impose enormous costs and disrupt programs.
Waiting until the fall for an appeal court ruling would be unfortunate, said Dan Laitsch, an associate education professor at SFU.
"It really is kind of an all-or-nothing case," Laitsch said. "They're playing a fairly high stakes poker game because either side could lose big depending on the outcome of the appeal."
Ideally, he said, the two sides would recognize it's too risky to wait and instead craft a settlement that doesn't subject schools to a months-long strike action.
Laitsch said budget shortfalls now surfacing at many districts mean the province will be under pressure to find more money for the school system regardless of the outcome of the teachers' dispute.