Both sides in a long-running teachers' dispute have drawn new lines in the sand, with the B.C. government readying legislation to end the six-month labour dispute and teachers seeking permission from the provincial Labour Relations Board to escalate job action.
The proposed legislation, to be introduced as soon as Tuesday, is expected to impose a framework for a settlement, but not the terms of a contract.
"I would like to think our response here is a thoughtful and constructive one," Education Minister George Abbott said in an interview on Monday.
But he said the government is not prepared to put more money on the table, other than the fund for additional special-needs services that was included in last week's budget. "No one should expect we will deviate," he said.
The head of the British Columbia Teachers' Federation, meanwhile, decried the government's plans as heavy-handed and said the union was willing to consider mediation and even arbitration.
"When you have both parties agreeing to mediation, the least government could do is hold off," BCTF president Susan Lambert said on Monday afternoon as teachers were rallying in front of the legislature in Victoria and on street corners in Vancouver and elsewhere in the province.
The British Columbia Public School Employers' Association, the province's representative in talks with teachers, on Friday said it would be prepared to work with a mediator if the LRB appointed one but noted that the involvement of a third party, on its own, could be expected to yield "limited results."
Mr. Abbott said the law could install a mediator to work out wages, benefits and working conditions as long as the final contract still meets the government's "net zero" wage mandate. He also raised the possibility of a cooling-off period that would end job action but give the parties another chance to bridge what the province says is a $2-billion gap between BCTF proposals and the provincial bottom line.
The provincial package is expected to set the framework for a two-year contract that would expire June, 2013. As well, it will address a 2011 B.C. Supreme Court order to restore teachers' rights to bargain class size and the number of special-needs students in each classroom, although Mr. Abbott would not say if that will be dealt with as a separate bill.
Teachers were stripped of those rights by a B.C. Liberal government 10 years ago.
Since September, teachers have been refusing administrative duties such as producing report cards as part of a limited job action. The union has applied to the LRB for permission to escalate the job action under an existing essential-services order.
At a hearing that began Monday evening, the union asked the LRB to allow teachers to pull their services for four days a week for two weeks. Their employer countered by suggesting teachers should be limited to walking out for a single day over a 10-day period, while returning to their full duties when they're at work.
Union lawyer Carmela Allevato said the teachers' proposal was "the right balance" between protecting education as an essential service and allowing teachers to exercise their constitutional right to strike.
It wasn't clear when the board would rule on how the strike will proceed.
Mr. Abbott has said the government would react quickly to restore education services.
Teachers last walked off the job in October of 2005 after the province imposed a two-year contract, and stayed out for two weeks. Veteran mediator Vince Ready helped negotiated a back-to-work settlement. The following year, as the province looked ahead to the 2010 Olympics, teachers signed a five-year deal that featured a raise and a signing bonus.
In 2007, Mr. Ready submitted a report to the province that included recommendations for future bargaining, including that both sides prepare bargaining objectives eight months before the contract expired and appoint a mediator or facilitator to work with them throughout the process.
The province accepted those recommendations, which were not binding, but the BCTF did not, according to a recent report by government-appointed fact finder Trevor Hughes.
Ms. Lambert on Monday disputed that conclusion, saying the BCTF had adopted some of Mr. Ready's recommendations at the time they were issued and is now open to the appointment of a mediator or even arbitration.
"We need to exhaust every possibility to find a respectful solution to this round of legislation," Ms. Lambert said.
With a file from The Canadian Press