As B.C. teachers prepared to unveil a strategy of protest against provincial back-to-work legislation, they were also endorsing a piece of that bill.
Hours before 700 delegates of the B.C. Teachers Federation wrapped up a closed-door meeting to finalize protest tactics on Tuesday, the federation president said teachers are officially submitting their preferred candidates for mediator in a contract dispute that has prompted a three-day walkout.
Susan Lambert said the BCTF has asked that either B.C. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Kelleher or Ian Donald of the B.C. Court of Appeal be named to the post, under the mediation process laid out in Bill 22.
The choice will be up to Education Minister George Abbott, who has said he will move quickly on the issue when he returns Monday from a trip to China.
Ms. Lambert has previously floated the two judges as figures of integrity the teachers would like to wade in to the standoff, but told reporters during the annual general meeting of the BCTF executive on Tuesday that the choice is now official. A spokesman for the Education Ministry said the BCTF has confirmed the choice and will shortly forward the paperwork on its proposal.
Discussion about mediation came against the backdrop of a looming decision on protest options – either an illegal strike, withdrawal of teacher participation in extracurricular activities, or other measures to protest the back-to-work legislation that bans strikes and lockouts.
The legislation also allows for the government to appoint a mediator to work through several issues, notably the standoff over wages. The teachers want 15 per cent over three years, but government won't budge off a net-zero mandate that says new settlements cannot cost more than the ones they replace.
The BCTF was poised to finalize its protest plans Tuesday night with an announcement to follow. "This is such a fluid and volatile situation," Ms. Lambert said.
Although dismissive of the Bill 22-ordered mediation process, Ms. Lambert said the BCTF is hoping either prospective mediator will basically see through the legislation.
"We're hoping that they would give advice to the minister as to how to make the process a fair one," Ms. Lambert said.
Neither man has been available for comment on whether he is actually interested in the job.
"We're submitting the names as requested, but on the other hand, it's our concern that the mediation process that's established in the bill is not one that's fair," Ms. Lambert said. "It doesn't establish a level playing ground. It constrains the mediator to simply negotiate or mediate on strips that government wants."
Mr. Abbott has said he's looking for mediator prospects with strong education backgrounds, effective dispute-resolution skills and the respect of the education community.
Ms. Lambert said the federation executive could also decide to flat out withdraw from the mediation process. She said the BCTF has calculated that Bill 22-ordered fines for a walkout could mean an overall $20-million hit on the province's teachers – a major financial burden. Teachers would be individually fined $475 a day and the BCTF $1.3-million daily.
"How do we address those fines, if in fact they are incurred, if in fact an action plan does incur those fines? Those decisions have not been made."
The BCTF president won a third term Tuesday, fending off a challenge by Abbotsford teacher Rick Guenther with 429 votes to Mr. Guenther's 238.
Mr. Guenther explained the outcome by suggesting teachers were reluctant to change leadership in a time of crisis, and he expected unity ahead. "We have a tradition of becoming unified and solid in times of crisis," he said.