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Teachers hold a rally on Como Lake Ave. in Coquitlam, B.C., on Tuesday May 13, 2014, to protest after the Coquitlam School District laid off 630 teachers last week. (DARRYL DYCK/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Teachers hold a rally on Como Lake Ave. in Coquitlam, B.C., on Tuesday May 13, 2014, to protest after the Coquitlam School District laid off 630 teachers last week. (DARRYL DYCK/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

B.C.'s escalating labour dispute brings upheaval in public schools Add to ...

As a teacher in a Prince George elementary school, Marianne Brown often spends at least part of her lunch hours and recesses with students.

On Monday, she will be under instructions not to work during those times, raising questions in her mind about how she can help students while operating under a provincially imposed lockout scheduled to begin next week.

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“It has a huge impact – we weren’t teaching during lunchtime anyway, but some of us were using it to support kids,” Ms. Brown said on Thursday, saying such support typically involves helping students finish assignments or going over material taught in class. “So that’s where it is going to impact – the support the kids are going to miss out on.”

Ms. Brown’s concerns are part of a provincewide upheaval in public schools resulting from a labour dispute between B.C.’s 41,000 unionized teachers and the provincial government. Teachers, whose contract expired last June, began limited job action in April. But over the past week, the dispute has escalated. Students and teachers are now bracing for rotating strikes and partial lockouts.

On Wednesday, the B.C. Public School Employers’ Association – the bargaining agent for the province’s 60 school boards – said it would lock out employees on a limited basis starting Monday, while at the same time cutting teachers’ wages by 5 per cent. That wage cut will rise to 10 per cent if the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation moves to stage two of its job action plan, which includes rotating walkouts. Because the BCTF had previously announced plans to start rotating walkouts beginning Monday, the 10-per-cent wage cut will kick in as the walkouts start.

Dubbing the restrictions “Christy Clark’s lockouts,” BCTF president Jim Iker said the employer’s move would put exams, graduation ceremonies and year-end activities at risk.

“In adopting this strategy, Christy Clark could be the cause of many cancelled field trips, sports tournaments, theatre productions and many other events that many B.C. kids were looking forward to,” Mr. Iker said Thursday at a news conference.

Under the partial lockout, teachers will not be allowed to “attend their workplace” more than 45 minutes before classes start, or stay later than 45 minutes after classes end, except for an urgent safety issue.

Those provisions raised questions about extracurricular activities and graduation ceremonies, some of which are held on school property.

But Peter Cameron, BCPSEA’s chief negotiator, insisted the lockouts will not affect extracurricular activities, including graduation ceremonies, and called Mr. Iker’s statements a “mischaracterization” of the employers’ actions.

The employers’ 45-minute rule is similar to one announced by the BCTF in April as part of its stage-one job action, Mr. Cameron said. Under stage one, union members were not to be at work for more than one hour before or after instructional time.

“Let’s not say that we’ve created a special problem, that we’ve defined it,” Mr. Cameron said Thursday at a news conference held after Mr. Iker spoke to reporters. “Were the teachers saying before that they were prohibiting people from coming on the premises for grad? I don’t think so. And we aren’t either.”

There was also confusion over how lockouts could affect provincially required exams for Grade 10 and 11 students. Those exams are scheduled for June 24. A secondary school lockout is scheduled for June 25 and 26 and a general lockout for June 27 – the last day of the school year.

“In effect, what they’re saying is there will be no marking of exams,” Mr. Iker said.

Mr. Cameron, however, said teachers responsible for marking those exams “should be compensated 100 per cent [and] allowed to go in.”

The partial lockouts will reduce overall employee hours, giving the employer a basis to cut wages. The BCTF has said it will challenge such a reduction before the provincial Labour Relations Board. In 2011, during a previous teachers’ labour dispute, the BCPSEA tried to have the BCTF turn over 15 per cent of wages and benefits per month to school districts to make up for services that teachers had withdrawn as part of their job action. The LRB dismissed that application.

The current strike is the latest in a thicket of labour disputes that date back decades. Since provincewide bargaining was introduced in 1994, there has been only one negotiated contract – in 2006 – that did not involve legislation.

The last dozen years have been particularly bitter. In January, a Supreme Court of B.C. judge reaffirmed a 2011 court ruling that found provincial education legislation introduced in 2002 was unconstitutional. The province is appealing the 2014 decision.

The BCTF says it is asking for a 13.75-per-cent compensation increase over four years. The province has offered a 7.25-per-cent increase over six years, having recently backed away from its previous goal of a 10-year deal.

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