03/21/2012 12:26 EDT | Updated 05/21/2012 05:12 EDT

B.C. teachers to vote on withdrawal of services

The B.C. Teachers' Federation said Wednesday its members will vote in April on a full withdrawal of extracurricular activities.

Speaking at a news conference in Vancouver, BCTF president Susan Lambert said the 700 delegates to the union's annual general meeting adopted the plan "after three days and evenings of intense debate."

Lambert said teachers haven't ruled out a full-scale walkout but a strike will not be their first course of action. The plan will be put to a vote by the province's 41,000 teachers on April 17 and 18.

"To be clear, the plan also includes a possibility of a future province-wide vote of members on whether it's necessary to respond to government actions with a full-scale protest against Bill 22," she said.

"At every step of the way, government has chosen bullying tactics instead of respectfully working with teachers towards a solution."

The legislation puts in place harsh financial penalties for teachers, unions and union representatives who take illegal strike action during the cooling-off period, including $475 per day for teachers, $2,500 per day for union representatives and $1.3 million per day for the BCTF organization.

As well as banning future strikes under the threat of heavy fines, Bill 22, which was passed into law last weekend, will also bring in a mediator to try to settle the long-running teachers' contract dispute. If no mediated settlement is reached by the end of June, the government will then legislate a new contract with new legislation.

'Completely irresponsible'

Lambert criticized Education Minister George Abbott and his handling of the labour dispute, and took a shot at the minister for taking a trip to China during what she called "a critical time."

"He is attempting to abdicate any accountability for the crisis this government has created in our schools and the broken relationship with the teachers of this province," she said.

"It's completely irresponsible to think he can impose this draconian legislation with its sham mediation process, order a cooling off period, and the next day head to China to recruit more fee-paying international students to our underfunded public schools."

Lambert said teachers will mount a legal challenge to Bill 22 and plan to make the legislation an issue in the next provincial election.

"This government has repeatedly demonstrated such profound disrespect for the work we do that members felt they had to take a stand," she said.

"It's one of the only options left open under Bill 22. Local teacher associations in about a dozen school districts have already voted independently to withdraw participation in extra-curricular voluntary activities."

At the annual general meeting Lambert was also re-elected for a third term, winning almost twice as many votes as challenger Rick Guenther, whose platform was based on forging better relations with the government.

The teachers have been without a contract since June and began job action in September. Key issues in the contract dispute include wage increases, class sizes and support for special needs students.

But the back-to-work law also says a B.C. Supreme Court ruling around classroom size and composition won't be tackled until the next round of negotiations in the summer of 2013.