POLITICS

B.C. teachers warn of potential illegal job action, but not before two votes

03/21/2012 04:33 EDT | Updated 05/21/2012 05:12 EDT
VANCOUVER - The British Columbia teachers' union is threatening to stage a full-scale strike despite stiff penalties, though the illegal job action would not go ahead for at least a month and not until a majority of teachers vote twice in favour of walking out.

The union revealed its new plan to resist the government's back-to-work legislation, which could see 41,000 teachers flout the law entirely or only cease extracurricular supervision of activities such as sports and drama, its union president said Wednesday after a four-day annual convention.

Susan Lambert, president of the B.C. Teachers' Federation, said the government has until April 17 and 18 to reverse course or face the possibility that teachers who staged a three-day walkout earlier this month will take more militant action.

"What we're suggesting is that government has a choice, it can rethink its legislation. It can decide on a fair mediation process," she told reporters.

"We're putting government on notice."

On the first ballot, teachers will vote to show which measures they favour pursuing. A second vote would only be held if there was willingness to walk out.

Lambert would not outline the criteria for taking the second vote or provide a time frame. She said teachers, who are deemed in B.C. as providing an essential service, will be back in their classrooms when spring break ends and resume their usual duties.

That will include preparing year-end report cards, which haven't been issued since September, when teachers began limited job action that also included not meeting with supervisors.

Before the vote, union lawyers will start a legal challenge of Bill 22, Lambert said.

The union won't step in should any of its locals choose to stage wildcat strikes.

"We're a federation of autonomous locals and yes, they will be making their own decisions," Lambert said.

Despite the prospect of more action, Education Minister George Abbott said from China that the government has no plans to reverse Bill 22.

"We certainly won't be reversing legislation," said Abbott, adding the government introduced the legislation because it felt students had suffered enough during the labour dispute.

Specifically, Abbott referred to a lack of report cards and collaborative meetings between teachers and students.

Abbott also said he is confident the government is on firm legal ground when it comes to Bill 22.

"We're very confident that Bill 22 will withstand legal challenges to it," he said. "Those were expected, and obviously we'll see that play out in the weeks and months ahead."

Earlier this month, about 1,500 members of the Greater Victoria Teachers' Association voted in favour of an illegal strike. Its president, Tara Ehrcke, said the local will comply with the legislation unless there's a collective decision to take different action.

"Were we ready to make a more significant escalation right now? Yes. But we also know that we need 41,000 people to be united in what we're doing," she said in an interview.

Ehrcke said she doesn't think momentum will be slowed and that teachers will remain "resolute" to stay in the fight.

The government's legislation imposes fines of $475 for individual teachers and $1.3 million on the union if there's an illegal walkout, but Ehrcke said teachers would only return to the job if the government waived those fines after first charging individuals.

Tom Knight, a University of B.C. labour relations professor, said he doesn't believe all teachers are uniformly committed to taking extreme measures against Bill 22.

He doesn't expect the government to back down either.

"I hate to put it this way, but if they let the teachers get away with that, imagine what they're opening the door to," he said.

"It's hard to believe that they would decide to (strike). The way the thing is structured it would be suicidal — just the scale of the penalties."

Lambert has said the fines are not affordable, and the union hasn't yet figured out how it would pay up.

"If it comes down to that we'll have to figure that out," she said.

Lambert also said the union hasn't decided whether or not it will work with a mediator who will be appointed by the province as part of the legislation.

The independent, third party will be tasked with working with the union and the B.C. Public School Employers Association, which bargains for the government, over the next six months to hammer out a deal.

The union maintains it is a "sham" process because the mediator can only work within the government's net-zero mandate, meaning no new money will be available and any pay hikes must be offset by other concessions.

If negotiations remain stalled, the mediator would be asked for recommendations before the government legislates a new contract.

The union escalated job action earlier this month with a three-day walkout, a move that was allowed by the Labour Relations Board.

The following week, the Liberal majority government passed the back-to-work bill, and it was enacted on Saturday.

Teachers have demanded a 15 per cent wage hike and refuse to allow anything to be stripped from their current collective agreement.

The government's bargaining agent is looking for a new teachers' evaluation system and new provisions around professional development.

In 2005, teachers walked off the job for two weeks. The B.C. Supreme Court ruled the action illegal and fined the union $500,000.