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The Globe and Mail

B.C. teachers dispute escalates with planned strike vote

Education Minister George Abbott, seen Jan. 4, 2011, is planning on legistaltion to end the dispute with B.C. Teachers.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

The ongoing contact dispute between British Columbia teachers and the provincial government is promising to heat up before it cools down, as each side prepare its next move.

Teachers have been on a limited strike since September, and while they can't legally walk off the job, they've been refusing to perform administrative duties like filling out report cards.

On Friday, the B.C. Teachers' Federation, which represent 41,000 members, announced it will hold strike votes provincewide, asking educators Tuesday and Wednesday whether they want to escalate limited teach-only action to a full-scale walkout.

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The results will be made public on Thursday.

The federation made the announcement just one day after Education Minister George Abbott said he has directed his staff to start preparing legislation to end the dispute because both sides are too far apart.

Mr. Abbott said Friday the government has been working on the legislation intensively, and he plans to introduce a bill into the house as soon as possible.

Federation president Susan Lambert said the teachers want to keep options open.

"We need to have some idea from our members as what next steps they want to take, and that's why we're taking a provincewide vote," she said.

Ms. Lambert said the federation has already applied to the Labour Relations Board to set the parameters for a new phase of job action, and the application is to be heard Monday.

Union-based meetings in every B.C. school will also take place Monday at lunch, but regular instruction will occur, she said.

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"Today's pretty busy, I've got to tell you," said Ms. Lambert. "Next week might be even busier."

Despite the strike vote, the union isn't ruling out mediation, she said, adding that members will have to examine their options if the government introduces legislation before the strike vote.

Once the government introduces a bill for first reading in the house, legislation can't be debated until the next day, or, if the house leader wishes, until two days, said Mr. Abbott.

The speed with which the bill moves through the house will depend on how long the government and opposition wish to debate the issue, he said.

Mr. Abbott said the government hasn't ruled out mediation, either, provided that mediation deals with non-monetary issues.

Liberal and NDP governments have both resorted to legislation to end or head off teacher strikes.

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In 1998, the NDP imposed a contract on teachers on the last day of school.

Relations between the BCTF and the Liberal government have been mostly acrimonious.

In 2001, the Liberals passed essential services legislation and effectively removed teachers' right to strike.

A year later, the Liberals removed class-size, staffing, and workload provisions from contracts, a move that was struck down as unconstitutional by a judge.

Both sides were ordered by the court to work together to resolve the issue.

In the fall of 2005, teachers engaged in a two-week strike after the Liberal government extended their expired contract. The strike was ruled illegal by the B.C. Supreme Court, and the BCTF was fined.

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