As the province passed legislation to end a contract dispute in the schools, the union representing teachers threatened a provincewide withdrawal of voluntary participation in extracurricular activities, which could void everything from the chess club to drama productions, book fairs to sports programs.
Susan Lambert, president of the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation, said Thursday that the option was one of few remaining for teachers in light of Bill 22, which prevents strikes or lockouts.
The bill also allows the government to appoint a mediator to find a settlement within the province’s net-zero mandate, which requires new contracts to cost no more than the ones they replace.
The passage of the bill, which takes effect on Saturday, comes after a three-day walkout last week by the province’s 41,000 teachers, who had been seeking a 15-per-cent wage hike over three years.
Various teachers associations across B.C. have raised the extracurricular protest as an option, and Ms. Lambert said it would be a measure taken reluctantly.
“The proponents of [the extracurricular protest]strategy say that we have had our hands tied and we are being muzzled. When that happens, your choices become limited. ...” Ms. Lambert said. “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?”
It was the only option Ms. Lambert put on the table when pressed on a response by teachers. She otherwise refused to be drawn into a more detailed discussion, suggesting teachers attending the federation’s annual general meeting starting this weekend in Vancouver will decide what to do.
“I am not going to be a bit more specific because our decisions are made by our members,” she said. “But I can tell you members are bringing a whole range of ideas. Each and every one of them will be canvassed exhaustively – that’s what we do – and the membership will decide. ...”
The BCTF does not see an extracurricular protest as contravening Bill 22, which threatens hefty fines for violations. “As far as I understand it, a voluntary action is voluntary,” said Ms. Lambert. “We are determined to resist the implications of Bill 22.”
Although the annual meeting will be largely open to the media, the debate around collective bargaining and Bill 22 will be held in sealed sessions.
B.C. Education Minister George Abbott said the new law won’t prevent teachers from opting out of coaching or other volunteer activities, but he predicted the BCTF threat to withdraw from extracurricular activities will be divisive.
“On past occasions where there has been an attempt to have an injunction against coaching across the board, that has become very difficult in staff rooms,” he said. “Because teachers are no different than lawyers or berry farmers or anyone else, they may choose to be coaches or to participate in other extracurricular activities. That’s something we should celebrate but we can’t demand it of teachers.”
With the passage of the act, Mr. Abbott promptly sent out letters asking both sides to submit their recommendations for a mediator.
“I do hope that Susan will have taken me up on my offer to provide us with some names of people who she thinks might be good mediators,” he told reporters at the legislature. “I think the mediator we put in place will be of unquestioned stature with impeccable credentials both from an education and a conflict resolution perspective.”
Ms. Lambert said the federation was hoping for someone with the stature of former mediator Stephen Kelleher, now a B.C. Supreme Court justice. However, she said the mediation process imposed by Bill 22 is so “skewed” she was not sure who would want the job. “Their hands are tied by the constraints in the legislation itself,” she said.
Mr. Abbott said the point of the legislation is to bring normalcy to schools after months of work-to-rule measures by teachers. “I think the class of 2011-2012 deserves that. They have had six months of modest disruption of their education year. I think they deserve an opportunity to get full teaching for the balance of the year.”