B.C. politicians voted Thursday to put an end to the government's long-running contract dispute with the province's teachers, which has seen educators scaling back their work for months and culminated in a full-scale walkout last week.
The Liberal-dominated legislature voted 43-31 to pass Bill 22, which bans further walkouts, forces teachers to resume their normal duties, imposes a six-month “cooling-off” period, and then sends the contract dispute to mediation.
The controversial back-to-work legislation may put an end to the teachers' ongoing strike action, but it will only inflame the province's poor relationship with its teachers, which has seen the government step in to end nearly every set of contract negotiations in the past two decades.
The legislation has been panned by the teachers' union and other labour groups as an attack on workers' rights, with the teachers considering withdrawing volunteer work such as supervising extracurricular activities even after the back-to-work legislation is passed.
Earlier in the day, Education Minister George Abbott invited the union to work with him to appoint the mediator who will take over the negotiation process.
Mr. Abbott told reporters Thursday morning he planned to contact both the B.C. Teachers' Federation and their employer after the back-to-work legislation was passed, asking them to suggest a possible mediator.
“I do hope that [union president]Susan [Lambert]will have taken me up on my offer to provide us with some names of people who she thinks might be good mediators,” said Ms. Abbott.
“The mediator we'll put in place will be of unquestioned stature and impeccable credentials, both from an educational and from a conflict resolution perspective.”
Ms. Lambert, the president of the B.C. Teachers' Federation, was asked repeatedly at a news conference in Vancouver before the legislature vote whether she'd take Mr. Abbott up on that offer, but she refused to say.
Instead, Lambert suggested the end result has already been predetermined.
“This mediation process, I call it a mock mediation process, is one that's skewed right from the get-go so I don't know what kind of a mediator would accept the task in the first place,” she said.
“It would have to be someone who has extensive mediation experience, but even then, their hands are tied by the constraints in the legislation itself.”
The government has already said any mediated settlement must abide by the province's so-called net zero mandate, which stipulates that new public-sector contracts must not cost the government any additional money. That means any gains such as increased wages must be offset my concessions elsewhere.
The teachers started a limited strike in September as part of a dispute that centres largely around the teachers' demand for a 15-per-cent wage hike, as well as other changes to classroom conditions.
Because teachers are considered an essential service, their job action has been limited to skipping administrative tasks such as filling out report cards. Earlier this month, the teachers won the labour board's approval for a full-scale walkout, which happened over three days last week.
Ms. Lambert said union members will decide how they will react to the legislation at their annual general meeting, which begins in Vancouver this weekend.
One of the options they're considering is withdrawing from supervising extracurricular activities even more than they have already. She said participation in extracurricular activities such as school clubs is voluntary and would not contravene the new legislation.
“It's something we come to very reluctantly,” she said.
“It's not something we want to do. A lot of the joy you get in teaching is through extracurricular activities but when you have such limited options and when you're facing such punitive fines what else can you do to make sure that you continue to articulate the needs of your students?”
Teachers have been without a contract since last June, and a government appointed fact finder concluded earlier this year that there was little hope the two sides could negotiate a settlement on their own.
It appears the back-to-work legislation, which includes a six-month cooling-off period, will do little to bridge that gap.
“The fundamental differences are still there,” said Fiona McQuarrie, an instructor at the University of the Fraser Valley's school of business.
“They'll continue to be there as long as teachers want the working conditions they want and government is reluctant to pay that.”
The legislation also sets out fines, should the teachers or their employer break the rules. 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. Abbott has conceded he expects that imposed delay to be challenged in court.
If there's no drastic position shift by either side, a contract will be legislated.
Contracts have been imposed in all but two rounds of negotiations since the early 1990s, when the NDP government of the day imposed centralized, provincewide bargaining, rather than having each school district sign separate contracts with local unions.