As the Labour Relations Board gave B.C. teachers a green light to strike for up to three days next week, Education Minister George Abbott tabled legislation Tuesday that would suspend all strike action and could impose millions of dollars in fines per day if a strike persists.
As the legislature debates the “Education Improvement Act,” the B.C. Teachers’ Federation could legally walk off the job as early as Monday.
Teachers were to complete their own vote on that option Wednesday.
The idea of teachers being forced into a legislated contract is just the latest slap from the province, said the president of the Vancouver Island North Teachers’ Association.
“I think they were planning the legislation all along and I think it shows a complete lack of respect for teachers in that they are not willing to negotiate freely an agreement,” said Fred Robertson.
“They could do something to come to an understanding, but they haven’t moved.”
B.C. Education Minister George Abbott announced he intends to introduce legislation this week to end the dispute with public school teachers.
The decision comes after labour ministry official Trevor Hughes reported a negotiated settlement between the B.C. Teachers’ Federation and the government’s bargaining agent, the B.C. Public School Employers’ Association, would be unlikely.
B.C. Liberal house leader Rich Coleman said the legislation could be presented as early as mid-week, but the debate on the provincial budget would take precedence until next Thursday unless there is an emergency situation.
Abbott said legislative options are being prepared that would reflect the government’s net-zero mandate of no wage increases for public sector employees.
“We have three-quarters of public employees, with 100-plus contracts negotiated with the net zero mandate,” Abbott said. “We have to proceed on that basis.”
Robertson said he’s not surprised by the move.
“Abbott was talking about legislation in the spring, so it makes me wonder how serious they were about collective bargaining,” he said.
“We have proposals on the table and have said we’re always willing to negotiate — we’ve changed our package on a couple of different occasions, but they haven’t moved one inch.”
The BCTF had proposed a three-year contract that would see teachers — who’ve been without a contract since June 2011 — given a 15 per cent increase over that span.
Teachers across the province have been doing only essential service since September, refusing to meet with school administration, supervise students during breaks or complete report cards.
BCTF president Susan Lambert said her earlier call for mediation in the dispute is an unusual step for any union.
“Teachers are looking for fair alternatives, such as mediation or even arbitration, to help the parties find a resolution to this dispute,” she said.
Abbott said he would consider mediation for non-monetary issues, but with the two sides $2 billion apart on wages and benefits, that approach would not work for the monetary dispute. He said arbitration that would “cut the loaf in half” would not be consistent with the net zero mandate and the government will not consider it.
Abbott said he was disappointed and saddened to be faced with imposing a contract.
Robertson said he doesn’t believe the province cares all that much about the students.
“The members are teaching and the students are learning, but they’re not happy with what they’re seeing from the government; the lack of respect for teachers, students and parents, for that matter,” he said.
“They’re not happy that this government is trying to destabilize and underfund education — which is what they’re doing.”
Robertson said the potential for an escalated job action could happen, but more will be learned from a general teachers’ meeting, scheduled for Wednesday.
—With files from Tom Fletcher.