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B.C. vows to let debate on teachers bill run its course

Teachers at the Greater Victoria Teachers' Association office count ballots from their colleagues Wednesday, Feb. 29 on whether to escalate job action following the provincial government's legislation to force an end to the ongoing labour dispute.

Chad Hipolito For The Globe and Mail/chad hipolito The Globe and Mail

The B.C. government does not plan to limit debate on its controversial education bill but could turn to marathon legislative sessions to help speed it into effect, says Education Minister George Abbott.

"I would not support any use of closure in respect of this bill," Mr. Abbott said in an interview Wednesday. "If it is necessary to get the bill through more quickly, longer hours would be the way to do it – not closure."

Mr. Abbott introduced the legislation – Bill 22, the Education Improvement Act – on Tuesday, hours after the British Columbia Teachers' Federation obtained permission from the provincial Labour Relations Board to ramp up job action to full-scale walkouts that could begin as early as Monday.

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Union members, who have been engaged in limited job action since September, voted Tuesday and Wednesday on whether to escalate that activity. Results released late showed that 87 per cent supported escalating their job action, clearing the way for walkouts as soon as Monday..

Mr. Abbott said he hoped teachers would stay on the job and enter mediation that is provided for under the legislation.

BCTF president Susan Lambert has denounced that mediation option as a sham because the mediator would be required to stick to the government's net-zero mandate and other restrictions. Introduced in 2009, the net zero requires that any wage increases be offset by cuts in other areas and that overall costs cannot go up.

Once Bill 22 is passed, it will slam the door on strike and lockout activity and impose hefty fines – up to $475 a day for teachers and up to $1.3-million a day for the BCTF – for those who don't comply.

The New Democratic Party has said it will oppose the bill. That has led to speculation that the Liberal government would limit debate to speed up the process and squelch potential walkouts. But Mr. Abbott said he would not support that tactic, saying it would not be appropriate for a bill designed in part to respond to a 2011 B.C. Supreme Court decision.

The court last year ruled that parts of Bills 27 and 28 – education legislation introduced by the Liberals in 2002 that stripped teachers of the rights to bargain class size and composition – were unconstitutional and gave the government a year, until April, 2013, to fix it.

The bill restores some bargaining rights and includes a three-year, $165-million Learning Improvement Fund, which the province is casting as its response to last year's Supreme Court decision.

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The BCTF says those funds are inadequate.

A short strike could work in the government's favour, by generating some financial savings in salaries and giving teachers a chance to vent anger that has been building for months, political analyst Norman Ruff said on Wednesday.

"On the one hand it might have a cooling effect on the union membership by releasing some tension that's there today," Mr. Ruff said. "And it may well shift public opinion in their [government's]favour. … once you get into a disruption of the school system, public opinion might shift."

He noted, however, that public opinion stayed with teachers during an illegal walkout in 2005.

Mr. Abbott would not discuss potential cost savings to the government of a walkout, saying that if a walkout were to take place, some school districts might adjust their school calendars to make up for lost time.

"We are not contemplating this in any way as a cost savings, nor do I expect there will be a cost saving," he said. "There are expectations around student participation and achievement. … They're not going to be undermined by a short strike. We're going to try to make sure that kids are able to complete their educational processes as they should."

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About the Author
National correspondent

Based in Vancouver, Wendy Stueck has covered technology and business and now reports on British Columbia issues including natural resources, aboriginal issues and urban affairs. More

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