POLITICS

Illegal strike urged by some B.C. teachers despite hefty fines

03/19/2012 02:56 EDT | Updated 05/19/2012 05:12 EDT
VANCOUVER - A resolute faction of British Columbia's public school teachers is pressing its union to back an illegal strike, convinced that unity among the province's 41,000 educators will catch the government in a bluff.

Representatives of the Victoria local are urging 700 fellow delegates at its parent union's annual convention to vote in favour of walking off the job despite legislation enacted Saturday banning job action for the next six months.

"People feel extremely strongly that we need to actually have this bill repealed," said Tara Ehrcke, president of the 1500-member Greater Victoria Teachers' Association.

"That's a challenging thing to do and we have to speak strongly to do that, and that's why people are talking about the kind of measures that we are."

Bill 22, the Education Improvement Act, was passed by the majority Liberal government last Thursday, and sets out daily fines ranging from $475 for individual teachers to $1.3 million for the union as a whole.

The bill extends the current contract so that a government-appointed mediator can work with both sides towards reaching a deal.

Ehrcke said several other union locals support her group's stance and they will not be cowed by hefty penalties.

"I find it a bit hard to believe that (the government) would actually take that action. The fines were clearly put in place to scare people."

If teachers agreed to shuttering their classrooms, they would not return to work unless the fines were dropped, Ehrcke said.

In 2005, the B.C. Supreme Court ruled the B.C. Teachers Federation conducted a 10-day illegal walkout. The union was fined $500,000.

The union cannot afford to wrack up such fines, said BCTF president Susan Lambert, but she confirmed it would advocate whatever position delegates voted for.

"That's the moral choice that's facing teachers across the province — either you stand up to an unjust law, and knowingly take the risk, or you find other ways of resisting," Lambert told reporters as delegates held a lunch hour protest Monday in downtown Vancouver.

"There are consequences for teachers, there are consequences for teaching and there are consequences for public education. We understand the gravity."

Lambert would not say what position the union leadership would take on the suggestion to hold strike action, noting all such discussions were occurring in private at the convention.

But she noted teachers have successfully stood up to the government en masse before.

"When you are united, when you act in solidarity, when you act on principal and with integrity and courage and you build public support for that position ... then you can sometimes reverse government decisions," she said, expounding on the message the Victoria teachers may be aiming to send.

"Maybe this is a time when we need government to reverse its decision."

Other proposals aimed at striking back at government include pulling voluntary extracurricular supervision, only performing duties from bell-to-bell and challenging the legislation in court. Votes on all motions will occur on Tuesday, after which resolutions will be put to the province's 41,000 teachers.

Education Minister George Abbott reiterated his position Monday in an opinion-editorial written while he travels in China promoting B.C.'s education system. He expressed hope that the mediation process would work, while noting the independent third-party can only negotiate within the government's net-zero mandate.

Teachers must resume usual duties, and that includes issuing report cards and holding collaborative meetings with administrators, Abbott said.

Across the province, teachers had withheld those services since the school year began in September, but the law now says they must cease.

Ehrcke said her union has decided to take a stand because its members believe they've been stripped of their "democratic right" to fair collective bargaining. They also believe the education bill will worsen classroom conditions by not providing proper funding and consider it a harbinger of American-style education, which they deplore.

"When you kind of look at what's at stake, and the bigger picture, I think people are willing to take that risk," she said of staging an illegal walkout.

Kindergarten teacher and convention delegate Maire Walker, with the Surrey District school board, said she's not willing to go that far.

"Doing anything illegal really isn't something that I personally feel I would like to do for myself," she said, noting her preference is to end extracurricular activities. " (But) I understand their concerns and how serious the matter is and how they're taking it seriously."

But teacher Kevin Amboe said it's a matter of respect, and he's willing to take whatever steps are necessary to challenge the bill.

"I'm willing to go out, I'm willing to protest," he said. "I will be on a picket line when the time comes."