If The Honourable Madam Justice B. Brown ever retires from the bench, she should consider teaching university courses in lateral thinking. Her ruling on the contempt of court charge against the BC Teachers' Federation stumped the pundits and was described in glowing terms. She essentially put the teachers' union into trusteeship while reserving the right to levy further heavy penalties. Her explicit reference to denying the $50 per day strike pay infuriated the rank-and-file teachers and might contribute to renewing their resolve to remain on the picket line several more days at the risk of enormous fines for the union.
A broad interpretation of the court's order means the union is in trusteeship with the court appointed "monitor". The union, in that interpretation, cannot use its email systems, its phone systems, its faxes or even its offices to in any way to further the strike action. Doing so would aggravate the contempt and run the risk of bankrupting the union with fines.
The court's decision said:
"I will enjoin the BCTF and related entities (and here I am contemplating wholly-owned subsidiaries, trusts, etc, because I do not understand or know the exact mechanism that the BCTF is using to facilitate the breach of the court order, it appears that there may be funds solely in control of the BCTF) and from using their assets to further the breach of the court order of October 6, 2005."
The court also said:
"In particular, the BCTF is enjoined from paying amounts to its members as "strike pay" or to otherwise compensate members for loss relating to breach of the order of October 6, 2005; from providing guarantees or promises to pay to protect members from such losses; from using its books records and offices to permit third parties to facilitate continuing breach of the court order."
Not about 50 bucks
It took a lot to drive law abiding teachers to participate in the longest province-wide strike in BC's history. Large classes with unlimited numbers of special needs students is a daily reality that is not the same for trustees, administrators or parent advisory groups as it is for classroom teachers. Anger over those learning and working conditions, resulting from the Campbell government's 2002 Bill 28, drove the "illegal strike". Many teachers were insulted with the suggestion that they have been on picket lines because of the incentive of $50 a day in strike pay.
The behaviour of the Campbell government during the dispute has been despicable. The Premier spoke live from Toronto on Global TV shortly after the court decision was announced. When asked what he would say to teachers he spoke in the third person about what "they" might think or do. He missed the opportunity to look them in the eye and ask for a fresh start.
That's no surprise since his Minister of Labour took the lead in teacher bashing the first week of the strike; instead of acting as a neutral party in an attempt to find a solution. When the media found a dozen or so teachers, out of 40,000, who crossed the picket line, Education Minister Shirley Bond crept out of her hiding place and proclaimed that the government would stand behind teachers who stood up to their union.
Unions have an obligation under their constitution and by-laws to deal with complaints by one member against another, but it is highly unlikely that any union would punish a member for crossing the line under the circumstances facing the BCTF. However, it is also unlikely that any such member would find themselves anything but ostracized by their colleagues; the staff room is likely to be a very cold place for some teachers.
Face-saving measure needed
The dispute between BC's teachers and the Campbell government has not been helped by the court's decision or by the behaviour of the Premier, the Minister of Labour or the Minster of Education. However it ends, the bitterness is likely to continue for a long time to come, much to the detriment of everyone involved.
A key to exercising power is to know its limitations. The extremely arrogant Campbell government has repeatedly demonstrated that it doesn't understand its limitations. At a time when the courts are on the verge of bankrupting the union that has already been placed into virtual trusteeship, the Campbell government could defuse the conflict for the sake of education by offering some small compromise. A government that knows how to exercise power would create a "face saving" alternative for both parties.
Political analyst David Schreck publishes the online journal Strategic Thoughts where a version of this appeared.