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B.C. teachers union quits settlement talks over 10-year-old legislation

The British Columbia teachers' union has pulled out of settlement talks with the provincial government relating to legislation imposed nearly a decade ago that was later challenged in court.

And as those talks founder, negotiations on a new contract are also bogged down, with both sides accusing the other of being unwilling to budge.

For students, the dual standoffs spell uncertainty and delays, even as Education Minister George Abbott said on Tuesday he would ask the B.C. Teachers' Federation to reconsider its decision to put the settlement talks on ice until after a court hearing, now scheduled for October.

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"To wait is not something I can support or countenance," Mr. Abbott said in a conference call with reporters. "It's putting parents and students on hold unnecessarily."

The settlement talks relate to Bills 27 and 28, legislation the Liberal government implemented in 2002 as part of sweeping overhauls of the health and education sectors. The education legislation stripped hundreds of provisions from the teachers' contract and took away the union's ability to negotiate class size and composition. The union challenged the bills and in April, a B.C. Supreme Court judge found parts of the legislation to be unconstitutional.

The ruling gave the parties 12 months to work out an agreement, and the province and the BCTF have met in recent months in an attempt to do that.

On Tuesday, however, the BCTF slammed on the brakes, saying that a recent proposal from the province for a "class organization fund" fell far short of what was required and saying it would halt discussion until a court hearing, scheduled for Oct. 11, clarifies the ruling.

"What they have done so far is nothing to address the rights we lost or the language that we lost," BCTF president Susan Lambert said on Tuesday.

The breakdown results from drastically differing interpretations of the April court ruling.

The BCTF maintains the court decision means that Bills 27 and 28 should be repealed and money the government saved by implementing the legislation – $336-million a year, according to the BCTF – should be put back into the education system.

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The government, however, does not believe it is required to repeal the legislation, Mr. Abbott said on Tuesday.

"We believe we are not obliged to do that," he said. "We understand the B.C. Supreme Court's decision to oblige us to engage in processes that respect the constitutional right of collective bargaining."

As the wrangle over the Supreme Court decision continues, the province and teachers are at another table, trying to hammer out a new contract. Limited job action began when school resumed this month.

The teachers have not yet tabled wage demands and, to date, discussion has focused on what is provincial and local jurisdiction. The BC Public School Employers Association says the teachers' proposals amount to $2.1-billion worth of proposals on the table, not including salary proposals. The government has said it is not prepared to move from its so-called net zero policy for public-sector unions.

The BCTF has not yet decided what the next step of its job action will be or when it could be implemented, Ms. Lambert said.

If the province and the BCTF are unable to agree on how to interpret the April ruling, either party could wind up appealing the decision to a higher court. The fight, for example, over Bill 29 – Liberal legislation that remade the health-care sector – went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.

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After the top court's ruling against the province, B.C. agreed in 2008 to pay $85-million in compensation, retraining and upgrading for people affected by the legislation.

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