VANCOUVER - While Premier Christy Clark is cheering a tentative contract with British Columbia teachers, their union president says students will be worse off and that she only accepted the deal to avoid the threat of punitive legislation.
"We can't underestimate the importance of resuming normal activity without disruption in schools next September," Clark said Wednesday after a school year marred by a three-day walkout by teachers who refused to supervise some extracurricular activities or write some report cards.
Although B.C. Teachers Federation head Susan Lambert is recommending teachers vote to ratify the deal, she said the union representing 40,000 teachers was filing a court challenge Wednesday against the law passed in March that ended the job dispute and force both sides into mediation.
Lambert said the union, which has already spent $1 million on another legal battle against the government, wants a B.C. Supreme Court judge to suspend Bill 22 because it stripped them of their constitutional right to collective bargaining.
"We've had about 20 pieces of legislation aimed at public education over the course of the last decade," she said. "Five of those have been found violating international labour organization agreements."
The most recent battle in the decade-long conflict is over Bill 27 and Bill 28, which were introduced last year and ruled unconstitutional by B.C. Supreme Court Judge Susan Griffin in April 2011.
The new deal gives teachers improved benefits and seniority provisions but no wage increases in keeping with the government's zero wage hike policy for public-sector unions.
"I think that the most significant thing we have to remember is that this agreement changes nothing in schools," Lambert said." It doesn't alleviate conditions that teachers have been struggling with over the last decade, it does not reduce class sizes in any way and it does not provide the supports that have been cut from public education over the last decade."
Schools will face about a $100-million shortfall next year, she said, adding teachers could not bargain issues such as class size as part of the two-year agreement, which is retroactive to last year and will expire in June 2013, a month after the next election.
Education Minister George Abbott, who had maintained the government was prepared to legislate a teachers' contract to prevent disruptions in the coming school year, said Wednesday that there wasn't much optimism that mediation would work.
"This has come together, I think, to the surprise of many people," said Abbott, who joined Clark in Kelowna. "This was not a babe that was easily born. This took a lot of work."
In the middle of the dispute, teachers went to court to get a government-appointed mediator fired over his lack of experience, although that case is now moot.
Abbott said he was hopeful the mediated settlement was a sign that the decade-long dysfunctional relationship between the BCTF and the government was showing signs of repair.
Lambert later told reporters she is convinced that Clark, who was once the Liberal government's education minister, has a "vendetta" against her union.
She said the union, which is seen as an ally of the Opposition New Democrats, has had "a very troubled relationship" with the Liberals and would prefer a government that respects teachers.
"I think clearly the teachers of British Columbia have decided that we are going to make sure that public education and the health of public education is a vote-determining issue in the next election," she said, adding the union she considers non-partisan will be mounting a media campaign for support.
"Whatever government is in power our first obligation is to students and we'll be advocating for whatever government is in power," Lambert said.
"In fact, what I think is very sad about this whole year is that it's been guided and driven by the political aspiration of government instead of the needs of students and we need to get away from that."
Abbott said that despite which government is elected in 2013, one thing is clear: "I do think the BCTF needs to sit down and try to build that mature constructive relationship that has proven elusive for so long."
"The people who get hurt are, principally, students."
With files from Dirk Meissner in Victoria.