British Columbia politicians voted Thursday to put an end to the government's long-running contract dispute with the province's teachers, which has seen educators scale back their work for months and culminated in a full-scale walkout last week.
The Liberal-dominated legislature voted 43-31 to pass Bill 22, which bans further walkouts, forces teachers to resume their normal duties, imposes a six-month "cooling-off" period, and then sends the contract dispute to mediation.
The bill is expected to get royal assent and will be law by Saturday, Abbott said.
The controversial back-to-work legislation may put an end to the teachers' ongoing strike action, but appears likely to only inflame the province's poor relationship with its 41,000 teachers, which has seen the government step in to end nearly every set of contract negotiations in the past two decades.
'I think Bill 22 has actually heated things up rather than cooled them off.' —BCTF vice-president Jim Iker
Education Minister George Abbott expressed hope the two sides could reach a mediated settlement by the end of the summer, but Opposition New Democrat Robin Austin wasn't as optimistic.
The education critic said he expects the mediated talks to fail, with the government imposing a legislated contract on the teachers in September.
Abbott now claims a place in the long list of B.C. politicians from all political stripes who have failed to oversee successfully-negotiated collective agreements between the government and the B.C. Teachers' Federation.
Over the past 30 years, there has only been one successful contract. Abbott said that occurred in 2006, when teachers and the government signed a five-year deal that included a 16-per-cent wage increase and a signing bonus worth about $4,000 for each teacher.
"One of the things I had hoped to do when I started as an education minister was to move the dial at least somewhat in terms of the labour relations culture that exists between government and the BCTF, and the political culture that exists between the BCTF and government," Abbott said after the bill had passed.
"I can't say that I feel at this moment like we have moved that dial very much, if at all."
NDP calls bill 'cynical'
Austin called the legislation "cynical," saying it does nothing to improve education.
The legislation has also been panned by the teachers' union and other labour groups as an attack on workers' rights.
The union will move next to explore whether it has any legal options to challenge the bill. It already expects to take the province to court over a segment dealing with classroom size and composition, said Jim Iker, a union vice-president.
Union members will also discuss various avenues that might be employed to "resist" the legislation, he said, including whether they should withdraw voluntary supervision of extracurricular activities.
"I think Bill 22 has actually heated things up rather than cooled them off," Iker said in an interview.
Earlier in the day, Education Minister George Abbott invited the union to work with him to appoint the mediator who will take over the negotiation process.
"The mediator we'll put in place will be of unquestioned stature and impeccable credentials, both from an educational and from a conflict resolution perspective."
Iker said the union has already discussed a name and agreed forwarding its suggestions could be "advantageous." But he questioned the likelihood of a true resolution, noting the mediator must still work in the confines of the province's terms.
"It's not a very fair process that we're being put into," he said. "I'm not sure if a mediator with any kind of experience and stature is willing to put themselves into that situation."
'Net zero' sticking point
The government has already said any mediated settlement must abide by the province's so-called "net zero" mandate, which stipulates that new public-sector contracts must not cost the government any additional money. That means any gains, such as increased wages, must be offset my concessions elsewhere.
The teachers started a limited strike in September as part of a dispute that centres largely around the teachers' demand for a 15-per-cent wage hike, as well as other changes to classroom conditions.
Because teachers are considered an essential service, their job action has been limited to skipping administrative tasks, such as filling out report cards. Earlier this month, the teachers won the labour board's approval for a full-scale walkout, which happened over three days last week.
Teachers have been without a contract since last June, and a government appointed fact-finder concluded earlier this year that there was little hope the two sides could negotiate a settlement on their own.
"The fundamental differences are still there," agreed Fiona McQuarrie, an instructor at the University of the Fraser Valley's school of business.
"They'll continue to be there as long as teachers want the working conditions they want and government is reluctant to pay that."
The legislation also sets out fines, should the teachers or their employer break the rules. The back-to-work law also says a B.C. Supreme Court ruling around classroom size and composition won't be tackled until the next round of negotiations in the summer of 2013.
Abbott has conceded he expects that imposed delay to be challenged in court.