POLITICS

BC teachers withdraw from talks to rectify court ruling on class-size bargaining

09/13/2011 06:53 EDT | Updated 01/12/2012 02:21 EST
VANCOUVER - British Columbia teachers plan to ask a judge to clarify a key Supreme Court ruling on their bargaining rights, a move that will likely prolong job action that started on the first day of school last week and set back work toward a new collective agreement.

The teachers and the government have been in court-ordered talks aimed at remedying what the judge concluded in an April ruling was the government's nearly decade-long violation of teachers' right to negotiate their job conditions.

In 2002, the Liberal government passed legislation that barred teachers from bargaining over class-size limits and class composition during contract talks.

The court said the legislation was unconstitutional and gave the government one year to fix the problem.

Talks have been underway, but Susan Lambert, president of the B.C. Teachers' Federation, said the union and the province have "absolutely opposite views" about the meaning of the decision.

The union will ask the court to clarify the decision on Oct. 11.

The government will oppose the request, said Education Minister George Abbott.

Abbott said Tuesday he doesn't think the dispute over the court ruling will impair the ongoing collective bargaining, which is happening as a separate process.

Lambert disagreed.

"They are interrelated, and we are very, very determined to have class size and composition in this round of bargaining," she said.

Teachers began a first stage of strike action when school started last week, refusing to do some administrative tasks or meeting with principals.

Both sides agree they are far apart in efforts to rewrite the five-year contract that expired in late June.

Lambert said court clarification on the April ruling over class size and composition is key.

"What we think is necessary at this point is that we all understand exactly what the decision said and the implications of that decision," she said in a phone interview. "And then you can have fruitful discussions."

Since the ruling came down, the union and a government-appointed representative have held five meetings to discuss how to go about turning things around.

The union wants the legislation -- Bills 27 and 28 -- to be repealed entirely, with a clean restoration of former bargaining rights and collective agreement provisions.

That would include firm class size limits, guarantees of services for students with special needs and equal access to skilled specialist teachers, Lambert said.

But Abbott is standing firmly behind an alternative proposal meant to rectify the court ruling.

"The decision is many, many pages and contains many things, but it first of all does not oblige us to an outcome in terms of recreating the world as it existed in 2001," Abbott told reporters during a conference call.

The minister instead described a proposal that he said would address teachers' concerns around class composition, which he said ultimately comes down to the treatment of special needs children.

A framework called the Class Organization Fund would invest tens of millions of dollars in that area, he said, though noted none of the particulars have yet been set. He said he wants teachers to work with the province to figure out the terms.

Lambert called the proposal a "tacit admission" by government that public education is underfunded. She noted the union would welcome such funding if it was offered in an alternate form.

Abbott said he's disappointed the union has left the table, and warned it could set the talks back by a month or more.