03/12/2012 05:45 EDT | Updated 05/12/2012 05:12 EDT

B.C. Liberals move to end debate on teachers back-to-work law

VICTORIA - British Columbia's Liberal government is using its majority in the legislature to push through back-to-work legislation targeting the province's teachers, ensuring it becomes law by Thursday afternoon.

The government tabled the legislation, which prevents strikes or lockouts and appoints a mediator, amid a heated labour dispute with its teachers that culminated in a three-day walkout last week.

Liberal house leader Rich Coleman announced Monday that the government will use time-allocation rules to speed up debate on the bill. The Opposition New Democrats signalled they planned to extend debate with amendments that called for the appointment of an independent mediator.

Coleman said the Liberal moves ensure debate on second reading of Bill 22, the Education Improvement Act, which started last week, ends Monday evening, and the bill becomes law Thursday. The legislature will sit late on Tuesday or Wednesday night, but debate will end Thursday at 4:45 p.m., Coleman said.

"We want the bill done by Thursday," said Coleman.

"We've had six days of debate on second reading. We did the entire Family Law Act, which has probably 15 times more sections than this bill has, in four days."

Bill 22 prevents any further strikes or lockouts and appoints a mediator, who has until the end of August to find a settlement.

Education Minister George Abbott has said earlier that if the two sides couldn't reach an agreement by the end of the summer, the government will likely impose a contract.

A government report released last month said the teachers and their employer were still far apart, and a negotiated settlement was unlikely.

The province's more than 41,000 teachers staged a legal three-day walkout last week to protest Bill 22 and press their demands for wage increases, despite the government's insistence there can be no wage increases unless teachers agree to offset them with concessions elsewhere in their contract.

Teachers were already on a limited strike that began in September, in which they refused certain administrative tasks such as filling out report cards. Under essential services legislation, teachers cannot strike without approval from the Labour Relations Board.

Opposition New Democrat house leader John Horgan said the government should be exploring options to reach a negotiated settlement with the teachers, rather than forcing through back-to-work legislation.

"There's no issue; there's no crisis as far as I can see," said Horgan.

"Three weeks of spring break is not necessarily the time to use the guillotine and closure on debate. Why not allow this debate to unfold, and perhaps an opportunity will present itself for the government that will not require legislation."

Last week, the NDP attempted to amend Bill 22, calling for the appointment of an independent mediator.

The government is expected to appoint a mediator shortly after Bill 22 becomes law.

Abbott has suggested several times the mediator faces a monumental task reaching a contract with the B.C. Teachers Federation.

He has quipped that Mahatma Gandhi, the long-dead independence leader in India who preached non-violent resistance to end colonial rule, was not available, and has also said the mediator needs numerous skills, including the ability to walk on water, to find an agreement.