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BCTF calls legislation to end labour dispute 'bullying', will seek mediation

The B.C. Teachers' Federation continues to press for mediation with its employer, following the provincial government's decision to legislate an end to a lengthy bargaining dispute.

"We're dismayed to see the haste at which the Minister of Education has ordered legislation," said BCTF President Susan Lambert at a news conference today. "Bullying legislation will just exacerbate the situation. It will make matters worse. It will break even further relationships."

Earlier today, provincially-appointed fact finder Trevor Hughes released his summary report of the ongoing dispute between the teachers' union and its employer, the B.C. Public School Employers' Association, finding it "very unlikely" they could reach a voluntary settlement.

Following the release of that report, Education Minister George Abbott announced ministry staff will put together a bill or bills over the weekend to deal with the situation and plans to recommend a package for the government to legislate next week.

"At this point, we can only conclude that government never intended to bargain with teachers, and never intended that this round of collective bargaining would result in a mutually respectful signed agreement at the table," Lambert said.

The BCTF Monday called for an independent mediator to be designated under the Labour Relations Boards to try and resolve the dispute, she added.

"We're even contemplating asking for arbitration, should that be necessary," Lambert said.

Hughes' report found the government's commitment to a zero wage increase presented a "fundamental obstacle" throughout the bargaining process. The BCTF has steadfastly demanded a 15 per cent wage increase over three years.

"We're still looking at the potential for a mediator for I think the non-monetary issues," Minister Abbott said today, following Lambert's news conference. The BCTF's last demand would cost $2.06 billion but the government's mandate is for zero wage increase, he said. "I don't think you can ask a mediator to bridge that kind of chasm."

Appointing a mediator to address the non-monetary issues may be added to the legislation ministry officials are putting together, he said.

NDP education critic Robin Austin pointed out that Hughes' report said it was unlikely, but not impossible, to find a solution.

"I would bring in a mediator, someone who can go and crack some heads seriously, because obviously these parties are quite far apart," said Austin. "I think that's a better way than using the heavy hand of the legislature to come and impose a contract. I don't think that's the best solution."

On Monday, the teachers' union said an opportunity to break the logjam had been hobbled by the fact that the Hughes report had too limited an aim. A BCTF press release stated Hughes' mandate merely describes "the status quo" -- whether the parties can come to a voluntary settlement -- and doesn't seek a way forward. 

Asked whether teachers would walk out or strike if legislated into a contract, Lambert said: "We have an executive committee happening right now. What we will be doing is consulting with our members, we'll ask them to study the announcements today both by the minister and the fact finder, and we'll ask our members what their opinion is on what we should be doing next."

The union has planned a day of action for next Monday, in order to spread information about Hughes' report to teachers across the province. Teachers are encouraged to solely work "bell to bell," and the day is not expected to affect students.

Robyn Smith reports and edits for The Tyee. With files from Andrew MacLeod.

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