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BC government introduces bill to avoid teachers' strike

The British Columbia government introduced legislation today Education Minister George Abbott said he hopes will prevent a teachers strike and get negotiators back to the bargaining table.

"This is an opportunity for all the adults in the room to demonstrate we can reach a negotiated settlement," Abbott told reporters a couple hours ahead of introducing the legislation. "There's good reason for people to engage here."

The bill includes a "cooling off" period until June 30, 2012, while a mediator can work with the parties to arrive at non-binding recommendations. It prohibits a strike and allows for penalties of $475 for individuals, $2,500 for B.C. Teachers' Federation representatives and $1.3 million for the BCTF if there is illegal strike action or a lockout.

The mediator will be given latitude to make recommendations on issues like class size and composition, but the government will not consider increasing wages, Abbott said. "We are not going to deviate from net zero. There's no news in that."

Teachers have been in phase one of a job action since Sept., 2011, that has included a refusal to issue report cards.

Abbott said the job action has been harmful to students, particularly the ones who may be struggling. "I don't want to see another year like the current one," he said.

The government's bill would add a $165 million fund over three years, plus $75 million each year after that, to address last year's supreme court decision on bills 27 and 28. The bills had stripped provisions from the BCTF's contract that included limits on class size and composition.

Tom Grant, the superintendent of the Coquitlam school board, sat beside Abbott at the briefing. Asked how far the $30 million designated for the first year would go, he said, "What will be the appropriate amount, who knows. I think at this point we will welcome the amount we are given."

Abbott said it could take a week or more to pass the bill, unless members of the legislature decide to expedite it.

To reporters' observations that the cooling off period may just delay a strike until next school year, Abbott said, "Hypothetically yes, but we did not come to this point to have a strike in September."

The Labour Relations Board today ruled the BCTF may strike for three days, then for one out of five instructional days and must give two days notice before striking, putting the union in a legal strike position until the government's legislation is proclaimed.

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

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