While the B.C. Liberals prepared to legislate teachers into a contract this week, educators across the province were making alternate plans.
Though Susan Lambert, president of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation, wouldn’t tell the News what the next course of action will be, she says the group of 41,000 teachers will explore every possible avenue available to them to reverse Bill 22. That will happen during the BCTF’s annual general meeting this weekend (March 17-22).
“This legislation will be bad for everyone,” Lambert said. “It’s the worst-case scenario, and we will be resisting it as strongly as we can.”
The Education Improvement Act – or Bill 22 – comes nearly one year after contract negotiations between 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.
Education minister George Abbott said the bill imposes a six-month “cooling-off period” and sets up the appointment of a mediator to look at the non-monetary issues on the table, such as class size and composition. The legislation extends the current contract terms to June 2013, imposing the wage mandate that most other government unions voluntarily agreed to. It gives a yet-to-be-named government-appointed mediator until June 30 to seek agreement.
Liberal house leader Rich Coleman moved to end debate of the bill Monday afternoon and the government majority voted to pass his motion. Bill 22 is expected to be passed into law later today (Thursday), ensuring that schools will return to normal operation after spring break.
Meanwhile, educators currently on spring break are awaiting decisions to be made at the AGM. Among those is Vanessa Fehr, public relations co-ordinator for the Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association job action committee and a teacher in the Greater Victoria School District.
“It’s unfortunate that spring break occurred right as this issue was breaking down,” Fehr said. “If there seems to be a dying off or waning in the engagement, I can tell you, it’s probably because we’re exhausted. We feel like we’re under attack.”
NDP house leader John Horgan said earlier in the week the government should consider his proposal to delay the legislation and seek an independent mediator appointed by the Labour Relations Board.
Lambert says the Education Improvement Act is characterized by at least four different negative aspects. The bill curtails bargaining rights and imposes a “skewed, mock-mediation” process; ignores a Supreme Court ruling on class size and composition; removes any obligation for government to adequately fund the system; and proposes a $30-million learning improvement fund – $137 million less than would be required to compensate for inflationary costs over a year’s time, Lambert said.
“We cannot understand why government would table such a legislation, and we cannot understand why they would ram it through the legislature,” she said. “The only thing I can conclude is that government has been in control of these negotiations since the start, and since the start has made sure that they failed so that we could get legislation, so that they could legislate us back to work.”
-–with files from Tom Fletcher