B.C. Teachers Vote: Contract Could Finally End Acrimonious Labour Dispute

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B.C. public school teachers are voting on a new contract that could end a year-long labour dispute. GETTY
B.C. public school teachers are voting on a new contract that could end a year-long labour dispute. GETTY

VANCOUVER - British Columbia's 40,000 public school teachers have voted to accept a new contact, bringing an end to a year-long labour dispute that saw teachers reduce service and shut down classes during a brief walkout.

The B.C. Teachers' Federation announced Friday night that its members voted 75 per cent in favour of a tentative agreement that was reached earlier in the week. Turnout was low, at 52 per cent.

The dispute has overshadowed the entire school year, with teachers refusing to perform certain administrative tasks such as filling out report cards and, in March, staging a three-day walkout. The provincial government eventually passed back-to-work legislation and sent the negotiations to mediation a move that itself is now the subject of a new court challenge.

The Yes vote means those disruptions likely won't affect students when classes resume from summer break in the fall, but that stability may be short lived. The new contract ends in June of next year, just a month after a provincial election, promising to set off a fresh round of what will almost certainly be heated negotiations.

The B.C. Teachers' Federation recommended teachers vote in favour of the contract, but the union complained it only agreed to the deal because the province would have otherwise legislated a new contract.

Union president Susan Lambert said the fact that nearly half of teachers didn't vote, and a quarter of those who did rejected the contract, clearly shows teachers weren't happy with the agreement.

"I think that's an indication teachers are realizing that going into school next year, this settlement does nothing to alleviate the working conditions and learning conditions in schools, it does nothing to decrease classroom sizes, it does nothing to increase the programs that support children with special needs," Lambert told reporters in Vancouver shortly after the results were announced.

"From that point of view, we realize that this government has refused to accept its responsibility to nurture a high-quality education system. That's very hard for teachers to hear."

The contract includes improved benefits and seniority provisions but no wage increases. The employers' association bargained under a provincial government policy that said any wage increases must be offset by concessions elsewhere in the contract.

The dispute largely focused on wages, with teachers initially asking for a 15 per cent pay increase, although there were other issues such as class size and class composition.

Lambert said teachers will be raising those same issues when a new round of bargaining begins next spring.

"I think our objectives in this round of bargaining have not been achieved," said Lambert.

"So we're simply going into a new round of bargaining next year with the same objectives in mind."

Education Minister George Abbott welcomed the contract vote results.

He noted nearly every round of bargaining with teachers in the past two decades has ended with the province imposing a contract on teachers. While the government did pass legislation this time that placed restrictions on the negotiations, notably the requirement that there be no wage increases unless they were offset by other concessions, Abbott took credit for what he described as a negotiated agreement.

"Having a quite protracted and at times bitter negotiation culminate with a 75 per cent approval I think is notable and historic," Abbott said in an interview, adding that other public sector unions reached agreements under the same restrictions.

"It's fair to note that this negotiation, along with 140 collective agreements that we have reached over the past couple of years, they have all been reached during a period of economic uncertainty and fiscal restraint."

Abbott rejected the union's suggestion that the government hasn't adequately funded the education system.

He said the province must balance a long list of competing priorities.

"I suppose people can argue — and Susan Lambert certainly does — that there's no limit to what one should put into the education system," said Abbott.

"She should note that the same arguments hold for the health-care system, for the criminal justice system. There are many demands on public services in British Columbia."

Teachers overwhelmingly voted to strike last year to back their contract demands, but because of essential-services legislation, they aren't allowed to stage any job action, including a full-scale walkout, without the approval of the province's Labour Relations Board.

The teachers started the school year refusing to perform certain administrative tasks.

That continued until February, when the province revealed it was considering legislation to force the teachers to return to their normal duties. The same week, a government-appointed fact finder released a report that concluded there was little hope the two sides would reach a deal through negotiations.

The prospect of back-to-work legislation prompted teachers to return to the labour board to ask for permission to walk off the job. The board ruled teachers could walk out of classes for three days, which they did in March.

Shortly after, the legislature passed its controversial back-to-work legislation, which prevented teachers from walking off the job or staging any further job action, imposed a so-called cooling off period and appointed a mediator to broker a deal. The legislation, Bill 22, required any new deal to comply with the province's no-wage-increase policy.

In the meantime, the teachers also asked the B.C. Supreme Court to order a new mediator be appointed. The union argued that Jago, the mediator, was biased and didn't have the qualifications necessary to fill the post.

While that court case may be of little consequence now that teachers have voted to accept the tentative agreement, the B.C. Supreme Court nonetheless released its ruling on Friday, rejecting the teachers' case and upholding Jago's appointment.

The education minister was free to exercise his discretion in appointing a mediator, and Jago's appointment was reasonable, Judge Hope Hyslop wrote in a decision posted to the court's website.

While that legal challenge is out of the way, the teachers launched another one this week.

A petition filed in B.C. Supreme Court on Wednesday argues the back-to-work law passed by the legislature earlier this year violates teachers' charter rights to collective bargaining.

The union's notice of claim says the law put too many restrictions on the mediator and again complains about Jago's impartiality.

It also says the province has ignored a court decision from last year that struck down legislation preventing teachers from including class size and composition in collective bargaining.

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