Province moves to end teacher job action

After months of stalled contract negotiations, the dispute between B.C. teachers and the province heated up this week.

After months of stalled contract negotiations, the dispute between B.C. teachers and the province heated up this week, with teachers ready to walk off the job as early as Monday.

Just as the Labour Relations Board ruled Tuesday that teachers may legally walkout up to three days next week after two days’ notice, Education Minister George Abbott tabled legislation to end six months of teach-only job action and impose hefty fines for those who strike.

The Education Improvement Act comes nearly a year since contract negotiations between B.C.’s 40,000 teachers and the B.C. Public School Employers’ Association began. While talks centred around class size and composition, as well as teacher prep time, the two sides were ultimately polarized over the government’s unwillingness to diverge from a two-year “net zero” wage mandate.

Abbott said the new legislation imposes a six-month “cooling-off period” and sets up appointment of a mediator to look at non-monetary issues such as class size and composition. The legislation extends the current teacher contract terms until June 2013. The yet-to-be-named mediator will have until June 30 to seek agreement.

Bénula Giasson, first vice president of the Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association, said she was “shocked” to hear the bill will include fines for walking off the job: $425 per day for individual teachers, $2,500 for union officers, and $1.3 million to the BCTF in the event of a strike. Those fines would not take affect until after the Act is passed.

“This is not scaring us,” Giasson said, adding that she is prepared to pay. “This is just the beginning.”

The results of a provincewide vote by BCTF members was expected to be known by Thursday. Check or our Facebook page for breaking news.

GVTA and school union representatives have already voted unanimously in favour of walking out.

“Yes, there were some members who weren’t too sure which way they were going to go, but the government helped us,” Giasson said. “Bring in legislation and here we go.”

The new law also addresses an April 2011 B.C. Supreme Court ruling that found the removal of class size and composition legislation in 2001 unconstitutional.

The Education Improvement Act puts in place a new fund that provides $30 million extra this year, $60 million next year and $75 million each year after that for class size and special needs support.

“Net zero is the order of the day,” Abbott said following a fact-finder’s announcement that a negotiated agreement between the two parties was very unlikely. “It’s not something we’ve kept secret. It was in the throne speech in 2009 and it has been the consistent guide in all labour relations since that time.”

Deviating from net zero for the teachers would only trigger “me too” clauses among other labour contracts and lead to an approximate $3- to $4-billion deficit increase, Abbott said.

– with files from Tom Fletcher