At the same time the Labour Relations Board has given teachers the right to strike for up to three days, Minister of Education 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.
The B.C. Teachers’ Federation could legally walk off the job as early as Monday. Teachers are to complete their own vote on that option Wednesday.
The LRB ruled Tuesday that teachers can legally strike for up to three consecutive days in one week after two days’ notice, and a further one day in each subsequent week with the same notice. That could continue until the new bill passes the legislature.
Abbott said the 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. A separate penalty provision would be enacted if necessary, Abbott said, imposing a fine of $1.3 million a day on the BCTF and up to $475 a day on individual teachers who strike in defiance of the new legislation.
BCTF president Susan Lambert said teachers are reluctantly considering a full walkout, following the job action that began in September where they have refused to complete report cards or meet with administrators.
“Teachers would prefer to be engaging in a meaningful mediation process to resolve this dispute rather than escalating it,” Lambert said. “But given the government’s ongoing refusal to meet us half way, we’re compelled to try to increase the pressure on both our employer and government.”
The legislation does not impose a new contract on teachers, but instead calls for a mediator to help resolve issues in bargaining between now and the end of August.
Vernon Teachers’ Association president Bruce Cummings said Tuesday he was still working out the implications of the LRB ruling and the government’s pending legislation.
“I don’t even know how to respond to this,” he said. “The LRB ruling is for a legal strike, but Abbott introduced the legislation at 1:40 for first reading, and there were no nays from anyone in the house.
“Appointing a mediator is a welcome thing, but we’re prohibited from striking during this cooling period, and the interim order was done so that BCTF and BCSPSEA could work out what essential services need to be in place.”
Vernon School Board chairman Bill Turanski said trustees will need to meet with administrators to determine the best course of action over the next few weeks.
“We have been in favour of negotiation, not legislation, but at least things are moving and I guess at this point this is one of the steps that we have to take,” he said, “so we will all cope with it as best we can.”
The news comes on the heels of Monday’s BCTF “day of action” around the province, with teachers in Vernon holding a “rally around the schools,” to demonstrate their dedication to being in the classroom and working with children.
“We had a great time ‘Rallying around the Schools’ yesterday,” said Cummings. “Joining us were retired teachers, parents and students.
“Our message that we love to teach, we are teaching, and we are reporting to parents was received by the public with many people driving by waving or honking their support. Teachers all over the district were truly buoyed up and energized.”
— with files from Black Press reporter Tom Fletcher.