Teachers could strike as early as Monday

Provincial government tables legislation Tuesday to put them back to work, but teachers might strike before Bill 22 becomes law.

Susan Croll and George Serra

Susan Croll and George Serra

B.C. Teachers could be walking off the job as early as Monday if this week’s strike vote is successful.

Teachers in Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows – as well as those across the province –  took part in a strike vote on Tuesday and Wednesday after the B.C. Labour Relations Board allowed the B.C. Teachers’ Federation to take part in a three-day walkout, so long as the provincial teachers’ union gives two days notice.

The provincial government tabled legislation Tuesday afternoon that would take away teachers right to strike, ending their ongoing job action, while calling on a mediator to help the two sides reach a negotiated agreement.

However, Bill 22 still needs to be enacted in the provincial legislature. Education Minister George Abbott said that could take until next week, giving teachers an opportunity to legally walk off the job early next week prior to the Bill becoming law.

The legislation extends the previous teacher contract to cover the mediation period, with the goal of reaching a negotiated agreement by the beginning of summer. If there is no agreement, then the mediator will issue a report by June 30 with non-binding recommendations.

Bill 22 also includes severe penalties in the event of an illegal strike: $475 per day for individual teachers,  $2,500 per day for union officers, and a minimum of $1.3 million per day for the BCTF.

“The fines in this bullying legislation are punitive in the extreme,” said BCTF president Susan Lambert. “They are a clear attempt to intimidate teachers.”

While the BCTF has been asking the province to take part in mediation for more than a week, Lambert dismissed Abbott’s proposal as having a predetermined outcome.

“This bill… is designed to make teachers complicit in stripping the remaining protections in our own collective agreement,” said Lambert. “It’s absolutely Orwellian.”

Abbott said he was disappointed by the BCTF’s reaction to Bill 22 on Wednesday.

“The union has been asking for mediation. Now, they are rejecting the idea simply because the mediator is required to strike a genuine balance in the discussions by looking at what both parties want so we can put the needs of students first,” he said.

B.C. teachers have been taking part in work-to-rule job action since the beginning of the school year after contract talks with the province’s bargaining agent broke down. Teachers have been without a contract since June.

The Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows School District employs close to 950 teachers, who earn an average of $62,000 annually. The starting salary for a new teacher with a bachelor’s degree is around $45,000 per year.

While Bill 22 may take away teachers’ right to legally strike, it may not stop teachers from heading to the picket lines.

“In 2005, we walked out anyways,” said Maple Ridge Teachers’ Association president George Serra. “So we’re not closing the door on a walkout.”

Any strike action by teachers after Bill 22 becomes law would be considered illegal, and the BCTF would not be able to pay teachers strike pay.

While teachers in Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows held a strike vote Tuesday and Wednesday on wether to escalate their current legal job action, Serra said teachers would take another strike vote should they choose to consider an illegal walkout.

“The BCTF is sensitive to parents, and we’ll do our best to give parents as much notice as possible [of an impending strike],” said Serra. “We’re not going to spring it on people the day before. But is it going to be enough notice for some parents? Probably not.”

Local teachers took to the streets Monday morning in Pitt Meadows and Maple Ridge to protest Abbott’s announcement last week that he intended to end their job action. The protests were part of a province-wide day of action organized by the BCTF.

Serra characterized the province’s decision to legislate the end to teacher job action and impose a contract as a bully tactic.

“Wednesday, February 29th is Pink Shirt Day, a day that highlights that bullying never solves anything, and yet here we have a premier who herself, before she became premier promoted this day, and now she is doing exactly that, trying to bully us by forcing a contract upon us,” he said.

However, Maple Ridge-Misson Liberal MLA Marc Dalton said he doesn’t see the government budging from its zero-net mandate position.

“There’s just no room in the budget,” he said.

Due to so-called “Me too” clauses in other public employee contracts, any pay increase given to teachers in the first two years of a contract would apply to those public employees, as well.

“The fiscal pressures would be too much to allow that,” said Dalton, himself a former teacher. “Fifty per cent of government expenditures is salaries.”

Dalton said should teachers accept the Liberal government’s net-zero mandate and allow their wages to be frozen for the next two years, the government would be in a better position to offer wage increases in the future.

“We believe it will leave room down the road to make improvements,” he said. “If we continue to build up debt, it reduces out ability to make those improvements.”

The BCTF contends the net-zero mandate amounts to a pay cut, with inflation continuing to rise, and has the support of other major labour groups in the province.

“It’s preposterous for this government to conclude that its only remedy is to illegally legislate a contract on its own terms,” said Jim Sinclair, president of the B.C. Federation of Labour. “It’s time for the government to quit playing politics with our kids’ education and come back to the table, willing to actually negotiate.”

The Canadian Union of Public Employees is also supporting the teachers’ position.