B.C.'s 40,000 teachers have been granted the right to strike by the Labour Relations Board, but the government has introduced legislation that could take away that right and impose a six-month cooling-off period and a mediator to settle the contract dispute.
The rapidly developing situation has left many parents wondering whether they will have to scramble to arrange child care or time off work, as both sides jockey for position in a highly polarized dispute.
The legislation is expected to take to up to a week to pass in the legislature, meaning the teachers could legally exercise their right to strike in the meantime.
The province's Labour Relations Board ruled Tuesday afternoon that teachers can strike for three days in one week as part of their expanded job action, and then one day each subsequent week, though they must give two days notice before striking.
The strike ruling from the board came down just hours before the provincial government introduced its own legislation aimed at ending the dispute.
The legislation introduced by the government would not impose a new contract, but does include a cooling-off period that would end the current job action until Aug. 31, making the teachers' current job action and any future strikes illegal, once it has passed into law.
B.C. Teachers' Federation president Susan Lambert criticized the legislation Tuesday, saying Education Minister George Abbott should have waited for the mediation process to play out.
"We've been working very hard … to dissuade the government from legislating a collective agreement and we felt … that this is the worst possible outcome and yet, Minister Abbott has persisted."
The BCTF is expected to hold a strike vote on Wednesday and Thursday, meaning the earliest possible date for a strike may be next week.
The BCTF will not be allowed to set up picket lines, the board ruled. The board also said it will review its ruling on a weekly basis. The teachers required the board's ruling to strike legally because they have been designated as an essential service by the government.
Mediator appointed by legislation
The government legislation also puts in place harsh financial penalties for teachers, unions and union representatives who take illegal strike action during the cooling-off period.
- Teachers: $475 a day.
- Union reps: $2,500 a day.
- BCTF organization: $1.3 million a day.
At a news conference Tuesday afternoon, Lambert was highly critical of the fines in the legislation.
"This act is the height of political cynicism. It's much more of a political act than it is an education act," Lambert said. "The punitive fines for contravention of the act are outrageous and a deliberate attempt to intimidate, bully and bludgeon."
Since September, teachers have been conducting a limited legal job action, which has included refusing to meet with administrators, supervise recess or fill out report cards.
The government legislation would impose a mediator who will report back with non-binding recommendations by June 30. If the parties fail to reach an agreement with the mediator, the government could in separate legislation impose a new contract.
The legislation also extends the current BCTF contract, which expired last June, through the cooling-off period.
Under the terms of the legislation introduced Tuesday afternoon, any settlement will have to meet the government's net-zero mandate, which essentially means the province is not prepared to consider any wage or benefit increases.
Lambert said the government killed the collective bargaining process with the bill.
"This act legislates the net-zero mandate for teachers and that will mean, just in terms of compensation alone, probably a cut of about $1,400 per year per teacher — so on the backs of the profession of teaching is the balancing of this government's budget."
The federation is asking for a 15 per cent wage increase over the three-year contract. They have been without a contract since June 2011.
Meanwhile, frustrated Metro Vancouver students have turned to Facebook in an attempt to organize a walkout on Friday afternoon.
According to postings on the social media site, some students are proposing to leave class an hour early on Friday to meet at the Vancouver Art Gallery for a rally.