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BC court rules in favour of teachers' union on Bill 22

The head of the province's teachers' union says he feels "vindicated" by a B.C. Supreme Court ruling today that found government's second law on classroom composition for B.C. public schools is unconstitutional.

Three years ago. Justice Susan Griffin ruled the provincial government's removal of teacher rights to bargain class size and composition through the 2002 Public Education and Flexibility Act (also known as Bill 28) was unconstitutional.

Last year, the BC Teachers' Federation (BCTF) brought the government back to Justice Griffin's court over government's replacement legislation, Bill 22, The Education Improvement Act, because it included restrictions on bargaining class size and composition.

In a ruling released today -- one day before the twelfth anniversary of the introduction of the Bill 28 -- Griffin agreed the newer law was also unconstitutional and ordered government to restore teacher bargaining rights, and pay the teachers' union $2 million in damages:

"In Bill 22 the government re-enacted legislation identical to that first branch of what was previously declared unconstitutional, namely, the deletion and prohibition of hundreds of collective agreement terms on working conditions," reads the Justice Griffin's decision. "…When legislation is struck down as unconstitutional, it means it was never valid, from the date of its enactment. This means that the legislatively deleted terms in the teachers' collective agreement have been restored retroactively and can also be the subject of future bargaining."

The ruling also sided with the union's lawyer who argued last November that government was trying to provoke a teacher strike in 2012 to increase public support for Bill 22:

"The Court has concluded that the government did not negotiate in good faith with the union after the Bill 28 Decision. One of the problems was that the government representatives were pre-occupied by another strategy. Their strategy was to put such pressure on the union that it would provoke a strike by the union. The government representatives thought this would give government the opportunity to gain political support for imposing legislation on the union."

BCTF president Jim Iker hopes government will respect Justice Griffin's ruling and restore class size and composition bargaining language in current teacher contract negotiations. But he also expressed disappointment in a press conference this afternoon that government would pressure teachers to strike.

"When we were in bargaining in the last round we sensed that there was something just not right, the fact that we kept going back to the bargaining table and trying to bargain in good faith. We thought that there might be legislation in the offing, but we were still at the table," Iker said.

"I think we're vindicated now because it was actually happening, and for [Justice Griffin] to also conclude that, it's good news. But it's a sad state of affairs when in a free democracy and both parties are supposed to come to that bargaining table and bargain in good faith, it was obvious that this government was not doing this in the last round of bargaining."

Education Minister Peter Fassbender said he was "disappointed" in the ruling at a press conference this afternoon. After repeated questions from reporters on Griffin’s finding that government tried to provoke a teacher strike in 2012, Fassbender denied that was government's current agenda. However he would not comment on whether or not former education minister George Abbot was trying to force a teacher strike in 2012.

"Clearly I have never said I want to goad the teachers into a strike. Our government position is long-term stability," he said. "I think those kind of comments just inflame the situation. The reality is every meeting that I've had with the BCTF has been about finding collaboration and cooperation."

The ministry won't decide its next move until it's had the opportunity to give the ruling a thorough read. But Fassbender maintains student outcomes have always been top of mind in this government's education funding.

"We have invested close to a billion dollars every year into the classrooms to reduce the pressure on teachers, more learning assistance teachers, and so on. And again it's all about student outcomes," he said.

"We've been working hard to ensure that we have the optimal size classrooms within our fiscal framework. And we have some of the lowest [class sizes] in the country."

The current round of teacher collective bargaining resumed on Jan. 21.

Katie Hyslop reports on education and youth issues for The Tyee Solutions Society. Follow her on Twitter.

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