POLITICS

Standoff remains but B.C. teachers say 3-day strike got message out

03/07/2012 01:34 EST | Updated 05/07/2012 05:12 EDT
VANCOUVER - British Columbia teachers are pledging to return to the classroom Thursday after a three-day walkout that doesn't appear to have dislodged their six-month labour standoff against the government.

Both union head Susan Lambert and Education Minister George Abbott repeated on Wednesday their willingness to meet up and discuss the issues, should only they get a phone call from the other side.

But Lambert said the only way forward in contract negotiations was if the province brought something new to the table, and Abbott again vowed not to sway from the government's net-zero mandate.

The legal job action that kept some 570,000 students away from school was capped as a couple thousand teachers and their supporters rallied on the lawn of the Vancouver art gallery.

Several participants said they believed the strike had succeeded in turning the public against the province's incoming education bill, while conceding no ground was gained in stalled bargaining.

"I've read it myself, it's scary stuff," said Curtis Mathewson, a Vancouver music teacher. "This is our way of saying this is not acceptable to us."

Grade 7 teacher Astrid Lalonde said the strike doesn't look as though it's helped teachers make headway in achieving their demands, but they have managed to get their voices heard.

"It's not been heard by the government — because again, the people don't matter (to them) — but definitely by parents. I think we're getting our message across."

Teachers will return to school on Thursday and resume the limited strike action they've conducted since September, Lambert told reporters at the rally.

She didn't yet know whether they would stage another one-day walkout next week, as permitted by the Labour Relations Board, but promised to give "adequate notice."

The government continues to debate Bill 22 in Victoria, which would put an end to any labour action and according to B.C. Liberal House Leader Rich Coleman take up to two weeks yet before it's passed.

That has prompted Premier Christy Clark to speed up the bill's adoption, directing Liberal MLAs to no longer rise and speak about the legislation that will give teachers a six-month cooling off period and a appoints a mediator to end the dispute.

"The length of time it takes for this Bill to pass is entirely in the hands of the NDP," Clark said. "The legislation is going to be passed. The union knows that, the NDP knows that."

Earlier in the day, Abbott said his door is open but he hasn't attempted to contact Lambert himself since the strike began.

With about 130 B.C. union contracts either signed or in the process of being negotiated within the government's net-zero policy, he said it would be unfair and an act of bad faith to allow teachers to be treated differently.

Lambert said she wouldn't contacting Abbott, because it's his government that's in "the driver's seat."

"I cannot determine for government what it can do at the table to help us find a way out," she said.

The strike has saved the government $11 million a day in wage costs, which Abbott said will put back into the education sector.

Tom Knight, a labour relations professor at the University of B.C.'s business school, said three days of teachers demonstrating their anger and commitment has likely galvanized some parents.

"But I think they could blow all of that away and achieve a negative result if they choose to disobey the Labour Relations Board order," he said of any teachers who might engage in an illegal strike.

The teachers' best tactic was stressing deteriorating classroom conditions, as the public is less sympathetic to wage demands, said Knight, of the Sauder School of Business.

"There's a limit here, regardless of how parents may feel about some of what's in Bill 22, they do want education to resume and finish the year."

Knight said the bigger battle may be yet to come for the government, as contracts expire on March 31 for thousands of other public sector employees.

They include 29,000 workers with the B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union, 30,000 nurses and 43,000 other hospital workers.

Teachers may be part of a broader strategy for other public sector unions to achieve what they're after, he said.

"I don't know whether the plan all along ... is to agree to net-zero," he said, adding contracts contain so-called me-too clauses so the government would have to provide similar deals to various unions.

"It may translate into a gathering storm involving those other unions," he said.

He also believes they've significantly impacted the Liberal party's run-up to the 2013 election.

"The points are made, the law is going to be the law. It becomes foolish to just sort of flaunt it," Knight said of any further strike action.

"Now, the march is on to the end of this month, and the election."

On Wednesday, school boards across the province thanked parents who made alternate arrangements during the three-day teachers' strike as only a few students turned up at schools staffed by some administrators.

Several schools have prepared contingency plans if all teachers don't return on Thursday, though administrators said they're not anticipating having to rely on backups.

"There's still going to be job action taking place, I expect that," said Supt. Terrence Sullivan, with the Kamloops-Thompson school district.

"I don't know whether there will be some new twists or turns to it."

But he's not concerned that "high emotions" will trickle into the classroom.

"They're professionals," he said. "

Neither Sullivan, nor the school boards in Vancouver or the Kelowna area reported cases of employees being blocked by protesting teachers.

"Teachers tried to communicate their message, and they've done so in a very responsible way and co-operative way," said Supt. Hugh Gloster, who oversees 22,000 students in the Central Okanagan school district.

— With files from Dirk Meissner in Victoria