The pitched battle between British Columbia teachers and the provincial government has spilled over into a broader confrontation, with other unions throwing their support behind the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation and the government moving quickly to stop pickets that targeted government offices in Victoria.
With another rally scheduled to take place Wednesday in Vancouver, unions promised not to repeat the picketing that rippled through Victoria on Tuesday as thousands rallied to protest Bill 22, the government’s contentious new education legislation.
With that commitment, the Labour Relations Board – which convened a rushed hearing at the province’s request – adjourned it, on the understanding that the province could reapply if pickets spring up again.
“We respect the right of the BCTF to demonstrate, but illegal strike action must not be allowed to bar public servants from being able to go to work and serve the taxpayers and public,” Finance Minister Kevin Falcon said in a statement after the LRB decision.
As that whirlwind played out, political tension over the bill and this week’s teachers’ walkout increased.
In Victoria, Premier Christy Clark accused the New Democratic Party of stonewalling legislation that would get children back in class.
“We all know the conclusion to this is inevitable,” she told reporters in Victoria. “That legislation is going to pass, so I’m not sure what their [NDP’s]purpose is in closing down schools when it isn’t going to do anything to change the outcome.”
At the rally Tuesday, NDP Leader Adrian Dix said every member of the 34-person NDP caucus would speak against the bill.
Speaking just moments after the Premier, Education Minister George Abbott repeated his assertion that the government wouldn’t rush the bill into law and that it deserves a full hearing.
“The speed of the bill is secondary in our view to a proper airing of the bill,” Mr. Abbott said. “We're trying to be patient.”
He said he expects teachers back in classrooms on Thursday, but added, “If they are not there, I think that will change the way we approach debate on the bill.”
At the rally, BCTF president Susan Lambert said teachers have “won in the court of public opinion” and suggested the labour dispute will help finish off the B.C. Liberals’ hold on power.
“This is a government in freefall,” she said.
As the Victoria rally got under way, at least 2,000 union members signed up to collect “target pay” – provided to union members who don’t go to work because their place of work is behind picket lines.
That action, which affected members of the B.C. Federation of Labour and the B.C. Government and Services Employees’ Union, resulted in the speedy application to the LRB.
Teachers have been off the job this week but are expected to be back in classrooms on Thursday, in line with an interim order from the LRB.
That order, released Feb. 28, gave the BCTF permission to escalate its job action to a full-scale walkout for three days in a row for the first week of ramped-up job action and for one day a week after that, providing the union gave two days’ advance notice.
Many school districts, including Vancouver, begin a two-week closing on March 12, and other districts have a spring break the following week. The legislature does not sit the third week of March.
Those breaks, and the time it could take for Bill 22 to pass, mean that there may be a window for at least one more legal walkout before the bill is passed.
Under phase one job action that began in September, teachers have been refusing some work, including filling out report cards and supervising recess, but have been teaching in the classrooms.
The BCTF’s contract expired in June, 2011, and the union and the provincial bargaining agent have spent months in negotiations but remain far apart on issues including wages, seniority and class size and composition. The talks are taking place against a backdrop of a court ruling last year that found education legislation the Liberals brought in a decade ago, in 2002, was illegal and gave the government a year to fix it.
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