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Teacher Jaime Fernie reads an Aboriginal-themed book to her all-day kindergarten and grade 1 class at Mission Central Elementary School in Mission, B.C., on Thursday December 16, 2010. (Darryl Dyck For The Globe and Mail/Darryl Dyck For The Globe and Mail)
Teacher Jaime Fernie reads an Aboriginal-themed book to her all-day kindergarten and grade 1 class at Mission Central Elementary School in Mission, B.C., on Thursday December 16, 2010. (Darryl Dyck For The Globe and Mail/Darryl Dyck For The Globe and Mail)

Education

Judge dismisses teachers' bargaining request Add to ...

Ruling that it’s not her job to supervise contract talks, a judge dismissed the BC Teachers’ Federation request for clarification of its collective bargaining rights.

Madam Justice Susan Griffin of the B.C. Supreme Court issued a terse ruling after the BCTF asked for an explanation of its rights to negotiate class size and composition. The judge gave the union a tongue-lashing and suggested it was using the legal process as a negotiating ploy.

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The judgment was a far cry from six months ago, when it was the province that drew Judge Griffin’s ire for an “unconstitutional and invalid” law that restricted teachers’ bargaining rights. The legislation, originally imposed in 2002, took the makeup of classrooms – the total number of students, as well as the numbers of special-needs students integrated into each class – out of collective bargaining.

But in the months after the spring ruling, and in the midst of contract negotiations, Education Minister George Abbott has refused to discuss class size. That prompted the teachers to walk out on talks last month and ask the judge for clarification on her earlier ruling.

“The true purpose of this application is that BCTF wishes to have the court declare which of the BCTF or the province is correct in its one- or two-sentence summary interpretation of the underlying rationale for the court’s ruling,” the judge said Wednesday. “The function of the courts is to settle real and present disputes. There must be a legal right invested in one party to seek relief from the court. Courts do not exist to give opinions on hypothetical situations.”

Judge Griffin said the context for the application was that BCTF is in the midst of contract talks with the province. She went on to add: “I do not consider it properly the function of this court to supervise whether or not the BCTF and the province are presently accurately describing the state of the law in their communications with each other. There is no present, actionable dispute that the court needs to resolve. The BCTF application is therefore dismissed.”

When asked moments after Wednesday’s ruling whether it was a mistake to bring the clarification issue before the courts, BCTF president Susan Lambert didn’t directly answer the question.

“We’ve been trying every way we can to rectify this situation, to improve the public education system,” she said. “So this was another way for us, an avenue we had to explore, to try and get these talks on track.”

Ms. Lambert said the BCTF had hoped the court case would speed up contract talks. When asked where the union will go from here, she said: “We have to go back to the table. Our job is to advocate for the system, for the kids, and we will be back at that table arguing for improved class sizes, improved services for children with special needs, improved services for all children in all public education.”

Mr. Abbott said he was pleased with Wednesday’s ruling, since the province did not support the BCTF’s clarification application.

“I’m entirely confident that we can get back on track and get back on track quickly,” he said. “The court has asked us as a government to respond with energy, with good faith, and with deliberation around the important issues raised by the B.C. Supreme Court’s decision. We are absolutely prepared to do that, and I hope in the wake of the direction from the court [Wednesday]we will see that from the teachers’ federation as well.”

Mr. Abbott said the province is prepared to discuss issues around class composition, because he sees room for improvement. He reaffirmed that class size will not be part of the negotiations, citing costs.

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