Education Minister George Abbott brought forward legislation today he said he hopes will prevent a teachers' strike and get negotiators back to the bargaining table with a mediator. Abbott introduced the legislation, promised last week, shortly after the B.C. Labour Relations Board ruled the province's teachers can with two days notice escalate their job action to a three-day walkout.
Premier Christy Clark said she doesn't want B.C. students to miss a single day of school, and they won't have to if the NDP helps speed the bill through the legislature. NDP Leader Adrian Dix accused Clark of playing politics and trying to create a wedge issue.
The LRB ruling, requested Feb. 27 by the BC Teachers' Federation, said that after the initial three-day walkout, teachers can walk out one out of every five instructional days as long as the escalated job action continues. Picket lines, however, are prohibited.
The Board has also ruled the BCTF and the BC Public School Employers Association (BCPSEA) must work with the board to designate "essential service" levels for the BCTF's bargaining unit. Review of the job action will be conducted on a weekly basis by the board starting March 12.
Teachers have been in contract negotiations with the government for the last year. A government-appointed fact-finder last week said it was unlikely, but not impossible, that the parties would reach a negotiated settlement.
Cooling off legislated
When news of the LRB ruling broke, Education Minister Abbott was in a briefing with reporters outlining the Education Improvement Act, which would make a teachers' strike illegal and allow for a mediator to be appointed to facilitate bargaining.
"I'll be looking forward to discussing what the LRB has ruled with my colleagues," said Abbott. He said he would also discuss it with NDP education critic Robin Austin.
Abbott's bill extends the current contract to June 30, 2012 and includes a "cooling off" period until the end of August, while a mediator can work with the parties to arrive at non-binding recommendations.
"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 mediator, who has not yet been chosen (though Abbott joked it would be useful if she or he could walk on water), 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."
The bill 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 penalties will not immediately be enacted, but are there if the government needs them, Abbott said.
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.
Size and composition
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.
The BCTF had estimated it would cost $336 million per year to address class size and composition, and in Oct. 2011, rejected a government offer that would have set funding at the level included in Abbott's bill.
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."
The bill also limits class sizes to 22 students in kindergarten, 24 in grades one to three and 30 in grades four to 12. While the caps will be "hard" up to Grade 3, they can be exceeded in the older grades and teachers will receive extra pay for the extra students. For each extra student the teacher will receive an added one-thirtieth of his or her salary. *
Abbott said he hopes the province can get past the discussion on class composition and quotas for students with special needs. "I think we need to look at these things differently than in the past," he said. "There is no reason to assume on the face of it that a child with a designation is going to be any different or any less manageable in a classroom situation than a child without a designation."
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."
Government House Leader Rich Coleman said it could take at least to the end of next week to pass the legislation. "We're not going to push it to where the house sits at night or anything like that because there's been no precipitous action that was illegal or anything that would require us to do that," he said.
Act is 'cyncial,' says BCTF
Although the BC Teachers' Federation admitted they didn't fully understand the act yet, they blasted it for legislating government's net-zero mandate at a press conference Tuesday afternoon, with president Susan Lambert saying net zero will cost individual teachers approximately $1,400 every year.
Calling the act "cynical" and "more a political act than it is an education act," Lambert said the government is using legislation to further its own agenda rather than improve education and teaching conditions in the province.
"I've said over and over again this is the worst possible outcome, yet Minister Abbott has persisted even in the face of the BC Teachers' Federation and BCPSEA agreeing to mediation," she said. "A more responsible course of action would have been to delay the legislation until that mediation process was resolved."
Although the legislation calls for a mediator to resolve differences between the teachers' union and their employer, Lambert dismisses it as a "sham mediation process" because any resolution would have to comply with the government's net-zero mandate, and as she understands it, class sizes and composition wouldn't be included in a collective agreement until 2013.
Lambert and the rest of the union executive were scheduled to discuss further actions by the teachers on Tuesday night, but despite fines Lambert called "outrageous" for an illegal strike, she said it won't necessarily prevent the teachers from walking out according to the LRB's ruling regardless of whether the legislation has been passed.
That means with teachers voting yesterday and today on escalating their job action, teachers could walk out as early as next Tuesday. When asked what message she had for parents worried their schools would close, Lambert said they should "stay tuned" and should pressure their MLAs into stopping the legislation.
Clark playing political games with education: Dix
There's time to pass the government's bill before Tuesday, said Premier Christy Clark.
"I'd certainly like to see it in place sooner rather than later," she said. "I want to make sure kids don't lose a day of school. Ultimately, that's what we're trying to do here."
To pass it in a hurry would require the NDP to co-operate, she said. "We need the NDP and the teachers' union to step back from the cliff a little bit and decide they want to be responsible about this," she said. "We can't do it alone."
Both the BCTF and the employer agreed last week to mediation, so it's not clear why the government felt compelled to introduce its legislation, said NDP Leader Dix.
The legislation "takes us down a different path, and I suspect not a better path," he said. "Now we're into a negative debate that I think will be negative for children in classrooms."
The NDP is still reviewing the bill, but will likely vote against it, he said. The party will advocate for what he called "real" mediation, he said. "I think what we need from all sides is a return to the respect that's been missing."
After a year of failed negotiations it's ridiculous for Clark to suggest the outcome depends on the NDP, Dix said. "The government decides the legislative agenda," he said. "For them to suggest this is my job is just more political games."
Teachers, parents and students all have much riding on the contract being settled in a fair and respectful way, he said. "I remind the premier there are real lives at stakes."
Dix did point out that the only negotiation with teachers that he was involved in as a government staff person in the 1990s ended with two years of zero wage increases followed by a two per cent increase in the final year of the contract, which also made improvements to classroom conditions.
Premier Clark, on the other hand, was education minister in 2002 when the government stripped provisions out of teachers' contracts, a move defeated in the B.C. Supreme Court.
"People can compare and contrast," he said.
Teachers held rallies across the province on Feb. 27, including some 350 people gathered in front of the Legislature. Students are organizing their own walkout at 2 p.m. on Friday, March 2 through Facebook to show the government they care about education.
* Paragraph corrected, 3:30 p.m. Feb. 29, 2012.