POLITICS

Teacher pickets at Victoria government buildings illegal: finance minister

03/06/2012 01:27 EST | Updated 05/06/2012 05:12 EDT
VICTORIA - British Columbia's government shrugged off the presence of about 5,000 chanting union members Tuesday, saying support for striking teachers was an opportunity to blow off steam while labour leaders sounded a warning of future protests.

The public sector workers amassed on the legislature's front lawn on the second day of a three-day teachers' strike to protest proposed legislation aimed at ending a contract dispute that's been simmering since last year.

Labour leaders said the government has angered the province's union movement with the introduction of Bill 22, which seeks to impose a six-month cooling off period and appoint a mediator with a strict mandate to not grant a wage increase under the province's policy of no pay hikes for public sector workers.

Teachers are demanding a 15 per cent wage increase over three years, but the government has said several unions have already settled their contracts in keeping with current guidelines.

"Today we say to the government, we've had enough," said B.C. Federation of Labour president Jim Sinclair.

Premier Christy Clark said the protest does nothing to change the Liberal government's direction, and the 40,000 teachers' three-day walkout only harms students.

"The legislation is going to pass," she said. "I'm not sure what their purpose is in closing down schools. The outcome of this is inevitable. All it's going to do is hurt kids."

Clark said if it weren't for the Opposition New Democrats' protracted debate of Bill 22, the government would be able to pass the legislation in three hours and have teachers back in their classrooms.

Education Minister George Abbott said the current pace of the legislation suggests it could be law sometime next week. He said he believes teachers will return to work on Thursday, but if that doesn't happen the government is prepared to speed up the legislation.

Many in the rally carried banners reading "$1 Billion for Smart Meters, $0 for Smart Kids," and "Bill 22: Education Destruction Act" and "Kill Bill 22."

Sinclair told the crowd that the massive show of support was the first round in what he expects will be a series of battles with the Liberal government as public sector contracts expire.

"This is an attack on all of us," he said. "And it's going to come again and again. We will reject Bill 22 and we will fight and fight until we defeat Bill 22."

B.C. Teachers' Federation president Susan Lambert said Bill 22 is "a brutal piece of legislation" that seeks to impose fines of $20 million a day on the union.

Illegal strike action after Bill 22 is approved would net the BCTF $1.3 million a day in fines, $2,500 for its officials and up to $475 for individual teachers.

"Bill 22 is tangible evidence of the government's arrogance," she told the crowd. "We've only just begun. They need to know that the teachers of British Columbia will defend public education."

Opposition NDP Leader Adrian Dix told the protesters he is "pro-teacher" and accused the Liberals of taking a confrontational approach to the contract dispute.

"I ask you to join us today and in the future to fight for public education," he said.

Earlier Tuesday, the government sought an injunction against striking teachers for mounting what Finance Minister Kevin Falcon called illegal picket lines outside government buildings in Victoria.

"We will be seeking penalties at the Labour Relations Board," Falcon said, adding he understands teachers want to "blow off some steam" and respects their right to protest.

The board ruled Tuesday afternoon that a hearing was no longer required because the picket lines had stopped, but that one would be scheduled if the teachers' union resumed such job action.

Workers arriving at government buildings for work Tuesday morning were handed leaflets saying they have the right under their collective agreements to not cross a picket line.

The leaflets stated it's important for all workers to stand together and support teachers in opposing Bill 22, the government's cooling off contract legislation currently being debated in the legislature.

The leaflets also advise union workers who refuse to cross the picket lines to report to a local conference centre to register for strike pay.

Grade 7 teacher Laura Maragh said most government workers supported her as she carried a hand-written picket sign that labelled Bill 22 as contract stripping.

Maragh and about a dozen other people — two of them teachers — carried picket signs outside a government building adjacent to the B.C. legislature.

"I feel very supported when someone does not cross a picket line and they tell us they are going to join us at the rally and that they have children and they totally understand what's going on," she said.

Maple Ridge special needs teacher Lisa Chew said the rally was an important show of support for teachers.

"To see all of these people out here reminding us that people care about the job that we do and it matters, makes me feel good," she said.