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Wrangling over Bill 22 could prolong teachers' walkout

Teachers walk an information picket line at Sir Guy Carleton school in Vancouver Monday.

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

British Columbia teachers could have another window to legally stay off the job after this week's walkout, depending on how quickly the controversial Bill 22 makes it through the legislative process.

Both B.C. Education Minister George Abbott and Government House Leader Rich Coleman have said that they don't expect to fast-track debate on the controversial legislation.

But if teachers move to illegal strike action by, for example, not showing up to work on Thursday after a sanctioned three-day strike has passed, all bets would be off.

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"If they don't go back to work on Thursday, they are breaking the ruling of the Labour Relations Board and then we are into a whole different debate, whether we just have to go all night until this bill is done," Mr. Coleman told reporters in Victoria on Monday.

"Right now we are trying to be respectful of the legal bargaining process. But if [teachers]break the law, then you have a very good reason to say to the Speaker that it's time for an urgent debate."

B.C. Teachers' Federation president Susan Lambert has said the union is weighing all of its options. Under an interim order from the Labour Relations Board, BCTF members can be off the job for three days this week and for one day a week after that.

The uncertainty around strike dates and the pending legislation is compounded by scheduled March breaks, both for the legislature and for schools. The legislature is scheduled to break the third week of March. Some school districts, including Vancouver, begin a two-week break on March 12 while others close for one week later in the month.

But it seems likely the BCTF will have at least one more opportunity for a legal walkout, given the time it will take Bill 22 to become law.

Each of 34 NDP caucus members expects to take their maximum time – 30 minutes each – to speak to the bill, the party's House Leader John Horgan said on Monday, pushing passage into the final week of March.

He acknowledged his party risks angering parents if they are seen to be delaying passage of a bill that would suspend the disruption in the schools.

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Ms. Lambert would not say whether teachers would be back to class on Thursday but vowed that teachers would oppose the legislation.

"We will be consulting with our members, determining what we are going to do," she said Monday. "I can tell you that teachers will not accept legislation that erodes the quality of the system. We will do something to continue to resist such legislation."

Mr. Abbott said money the government saves – an estimated $11-million each day the schools are closed – will be spent on education, including a potential boost to a $165-million Learning Improvement Fund that is a flashpoint in the dispute.

There is also a strategic reason to let the debate play out in the legislature, said Ken Thornicroft, a professor with the Peter B. Gustavson School of Business at the University of Victoria. Bill 22 was drafted in part as a response to a 2011 B.C. Supreme Court decision that found parts of education legislation that took effect in 2002 were illegal, and it gave the government a year to fix it.

"If the government invoked closure, it might undermine their legal case as well," Dr. Thornicroft said.

The province is anticipating a legal challenge to its new law and hopes to strengthen its defence by documenting its efforts to settle the dispute through negotiations.

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Teachers and other union members are expected to rally in Victoria on Tuesday. The fight over Bill 22 comes as several other unions are in contract talks or about to start them.

B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union president Darryl Walker said he was concerned by the proposed legislation.

"In Canada and B.C. we have the right to free collective bargaining – and we believe that right needs to be able to be pursued and that both parties need to be able to run out their opportunities in that process," Mr. Walker said. "And I'm not sure that's being allowed to happen here."

The line on pickets, what to expect this week

The provincewide walkout ramps up strike activity that began last September. In the first phase of their job action, teachers stopped performing some duties, such as filling out report cards and supervising recess, to put pressure on their employer during contract negotiations.

When those talks hit a wall, the British Columbia Teachers' Federation sought permission to escalate its job action.

In an interim order last week, the Labour Relations Board said BCTF members could ramp up their strike activity to a complete walkout for three days in the first week of stepped-up job action and for one day a week after that, provided the union give two days' notice. The union gave notice last week that teachers would be off the job for three days beginning Monday.

Under the order, BCTF members can't picket schools, meaning other unionized staff don't have to choose between crossing picket lines or losing pay. What's a picket line in this case? That's determined by the LRB and would come down to whether teachers interfere with employees, parents or students as they enter or exit school property. Unless and until that happens, the size or content of protest signs aren't likely to become an issue.

Wendy Stueck

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