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Chilliwack teachers saddened by legislation

As the Labour Relations Board gave B.C. teachers a green light to strike for up to three days next week, Education Minister George Abbott tabled legislation Tuesday that would suspend all strike action and could impose millions of dollars in fines per day if a strike persists.

As the legislature debates the "Education Improvement Act," the B.C. Teachers' Federation could legally walk off the job as early as Monday. Teachers are to complete their own vote on that option Wednesday.

The LRB ruled Tuesday that teachers can legally strike for up to three consecutive days in one week after two days' notice, and a further one day in each subsequent week with the same notice. That could continue until the new bill passes the legislature.

Abbott said the legislation imposes a six-month "cooling-off period" and sets up appointment of a mediator to look at non-monetary issues such as class size and composition. A separate penalty provision would be enacted if necessary, Abbott said, imposing a fine of $1.3 million a day on the BCTF and up to $475 a day on individual teachers who strike in defiance of the new legislation.

BCTF president Susan Lambert said teachers are reluctantly considering a full walkout, after a work-to-rule campaign since last September where they have refused to complete report cards or meet with administrators.

"Teachers would prefer to be engaging in a meaningful mediation process to resolve this dispute rather than escalating it,” BCTF President Susan Lambert said.

Teachers in Chilliwack, meanwhile, went from a day of action Monday to a day of reckoning.

Following a successful protest yesterday, which had more than 250 teachers rallying along Vedder Road, Katharin Midzain, president of the Chilliwack Teachers' Association, was informed Tuesday morning about the likelihood of contract legislation that afternoon.

"It's a sad day, a very sad day in B.C.," said Midzain. "This is frightening stuff. It's something everyone in our province needs to be afraid of."

Midzain said mediation and if need be arbitration should have been the next steps, not legislation.

"We have well established processes for solving labour disputes and this government does not need to be intervening," said Midzain. "By not giving the processes a chance to work, or to even see if they would work, it shows that this has been their agenda all along."

The legislation extends the current teacher contract terms until June 2013, imposing the government's two-year "net zero" wage mandate that most other government have agreed to voluntarily. It gives a yet-to-be-named mediator until June 30 to seek agreement on issues other than pay and benefits, such as class size and composition.

The legislation also puts in place a new fund to address class size and special needs support, to respond to a court decision last year that said those issues were taken out of teacher contracts without adequate consultation. It provides $30 million extra this year, $60 million next year and $75 million each year after that, amounts the BCTF has rejected as far too little.

The legislation imposes a new teacher evaluation and selection process that Abbott acknowledged will be controversial.

~ With files from Katie Bartel

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