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Mediate, Don't 'Bully,' Teachers Union Urges Province

Decision to legislate wage freeze on teachers will 'make matters worse' says BCTF's Lambert.

By Robyn Smith and Andrew MacLeod 23 Feb 2012 | TheTyee.ca

Robyn Smith reports and edits for The Tyee. Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's legislative bureau chief in Victoria.

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BCTF president Susan Lambert: Will seek mediation, perhaps arbitration.

"Bullying" is how the B.C. Teachers' Federation describes the provincial government's decision to pass a law forcing a zero wage contract on teachers.

"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 on Thursday. "Bullying legislation will just exacerbate the situation. It will make matters worse. It will break even further relationships."

Lambert vowed her union will keep pressing for a mediator to settle the dispute, and failing that, may seek arbitration.

And she didn't rule out an eventual teachers' walkout, saying the latest developments were going to be discussed among the membership. Last week the union said a walk-out would require a provincial vote of their members.

Earlier on Thursday, 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.

"We don't appear to be any closer to the resolution of this dispute than we were one year ago," said Abbott, noting there had been 78 bargaining sessions between the B.C. Teachers' Federation and the B.C. Public School Employers' Association but no progress.

"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.

No budge on zero wage 'fundamental obstacle': report

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

"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.

Report designed to fall short: union

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."

But Abbott said students in the province are "paying the price" and "I'm not prepared to let this go on any further."

On Monday, the teachers' union criticized the original scope of the report, saying it was too timid in its aim from the start, missing a chance to propose a new way to get the two parties to come to a compromise. 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. 

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.

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."  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Education

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