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Government 'provoked' teachers to strike in 2012: union lawyer

The lawyer for the BC Teachers' Federation alleges the Ministry of Education pushed teachers towards a strike during 2011/12 collective bargaining to gain public approval for Bill 22.

The allegations came as part of the union's closing arguments at B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver this morning. The teachers' union has been in court since Oct. 19 seeking redress to Bill 28 that in 2002 stripped teachers of the right to bargain class size and composition.

In 2011, Madam Justice Susan Griffin ruled Bill 28 was unconstitutional and gave government one year to provide redress. Government's response was Bill 22, the Education Improvement Act, which passed two days after the one-year deadline.

However, Bill 22 stated teachers would have to wait until the next round of bargaining until they could negotiate class size and composition. The union responded by taking government back to court this fall, alleging Bill 22 did not redress the collective bargaining rights teachers lost in 2002.

The union is seeking a reinstatement of class size and composition limits, including a limit on special needs students per class; a ratio of students to specialty teachers, such as teacher librarians, and counsellors; and unspecified damages for the removal of these rights from collective bargaining in 2002.

In closing arguments this morning, the teachers' union lawyer John Rogers alleged the ministry negotiated in bad faith by trying to push the teachers to strike.

Cabinet documents revealed two steps to this process: first by appealing to the Labour Relations Board to cut teacher pay, arguing teachers' job action from September 2011 to March 2012, which involved not doing extra duties like filling out report cards or supervising extra curricular activities, prevented teachers from doing their full jobs. The Labour Relations Board ruled against this.

The second step, which was not made public but the union claims they found out from the cabinet documents, was government putting pressure on school boards to cut teachers' pay and cancel any remaining professional development days in the 2011/12 school year by, threatening to withhold money from district budgets if they did not.

Teachers did stage a three-day walkout after Bill 22 was introduced, but a negotiated settlement was reached in June 2012.

Rogers told the court this revelation startled him, and he believes "it was done to provoke [a strike]."

Ministry counsel Karen Horsman made a motion at the beginning of today's proceedings to prevent the teachers' union from sharing the un-redacted cabinet documents with the BCTF's approximately 40,000 members, including those documents BCTF's counsel says are evidence of government pressure for a teachers' strike.

Horsman asked for, and BCTF counsel agreed to, a separate date in the near future to revisit the issue with Justice Griffin. Griffin said it was up to the two parties to decide on a date.

The union initially acquired the cabinet documents in redacted form through freedom of information requests, but eventually received the un-redacted documents through a court order this past June.

Reached by phone at the Canadian Labour Congress meeting in Ottawa, BCTF President Jim Iker says if released the documents will reveal government's refusal to bargain in good faith.

"If the details ever emerge, I think you'll see the public and our members, and parents will be very disappointed in government's action,” he told The Tyee.

"We've been trying to rebuild a relationship with this government, and I'm hoping that when we're at the bargaining table now they're there to bargain a collective agreement with us in good faith."

An Education Ministry spokesperson said the ministry has no comment on court proceedings until after Justice Griffin delivers her judgment, expected sometime in early 2014.

"The ministry's position is being fully argued in court by our counsel, who will deliver oral closing arguments this week," reads the statement.

Rogers' closing statements continued this afternoon, and government counsel is expected to begin closing statements tomorrow afternoon.

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

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