Mandated end to teachers’ strike expected

All signs lead to teachers being legislated to end labour dispute

In the Cariboo-Chilcotin and across the province, expectations for a legislated end to the teachers’ current work-to-rule job action are being reflected by people on both sides of the labour dispute.

The province has assigned Trevor Hughes, assistant deputy minister of industrial relations, to report on the likelihood of a negotiated settlement between the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation and the BC Public School Employers’ Association (BCPSEA).

After Education Minister George Abbott made the request, Labour, Citizens’ Services and Open Government Minister Margaret MacDiarmid instructed Hughes to meet with both parties during the next two weeks and report back by Feb. 23.

Cariboo-Chilcotin Teachers’ Association president Joan Erb says she is concerned about having an employee of the province acting in this role.

“It’s a bit unfair that they’ve appointed a government official to see whether or not the two sides can come to a voluntary agreement.”

She adds it would have been more equitable to hire an independent member from the Labour Relations Board.

School District 27 chair Will Van Osch says he can’t speak for the board because its trustees are either (directly or indirectly) involved or aren’t privy to the details, but he does follow related public information with personal interest.

“There was some concern they didn’t get a mediator for the fact-finding rather than to use more or less a government insider…. There may not be the impartiality that’s necessary.”

Erb says Hughes will be asking the sole question: “Do you think you can come to a mutual agreement?”

She adds the union’s answer will be: “Yes, but we need the government to come to the table with the same attitude.”

The final budget is due to be delivered Feb. 21, she notes, two days prior to the deadline for the report.

“I feel like it’s almost like a set-up. I think this is all pre-planned in an effort to either break us … or to poke us a little bit more, so we’ll escalate [job action] and they can legislate us back.”

Abbott recently stated back-to-work legislation can be passed quickly if Hughes reports no hope remains for a negotiated agreement.

The province is “absolutely” leading up to legislation, Erb says, as evidenced by government’s refusal to budge on net-zero wage increases.

Van Osch says he also expects back-to-work legislation is forthcoming.

“Because the job action hasn’t really escalated, I think the government has taken it in hand to have something, at least, to give them reason to legislate.”

In his opinion, he notes that if government never intended to budge on its net-zero mandate, it should have acted soon after the strike action started.

“If there was never any intent, and zero was the line, why didn’t they just impose a contract [last fall] and save everybody a whole lot of hassle? It seems odd to me to continue though a process that you have no intention of using.”

If a contract is mandated, it might be interesting to see what it contains regarding aspects BCPSEA had brought to the table along the way, he adds.

“It’s too bad really, as the province has initiated the BC’s Education Plan and is looking for input and hoping to develop something around 21st Century Learning, or individualized learning.

“If teachers don’t buy in or we’ve created some resentment, it’s going to be harder to implement those plans, and a lot of them are good ideas.”