As teachers vote today on escalating their strike against the provincial government, they are feeling “devastated” by legislation introduced by the provincial government Tuesday, according to Chris Harris, president of the Vancouver Elementary School Teachers’ Association.
The complex legislation known as Bill 22—the Education Improvement Act—addresses the ongoing teachers’ job action and deals with collective bargaining on class size and composition matters.
The bill calls for a six-month cooling off period on job action and a mediator to negotiate under the government’s net-zero mandate where raises can only be achieved through tradeoffs within the contract. It prohibits job action during the cooling off period with stiff fines slapped on teachers for an illegal walkout.
The mediation period runs to June 30. If there’s no agreement by that date, the mediator will issue a report with non-binding recommendations.
B.C. Teachers’ Federation president Susan Lambert has called the mediation process and legislation a “sham.” Harris agrees.
“You’ve heard the comment that this is kind of like the velvet glove? Well it feels like a bowling ball to the face to be quite honest with you,” Harris said Wednesday morning. “Obviously this legislation is much more than a cooling off period and a pathway to mediation. It’s much more than that. This is devastating legislation for teachers in Vancouver. It takes away immediately any kind of class size provisions and composition provisions besides primary absolute limits. So where we had a limit of 30 students in Grades 4 to 7, there’s not going to be any upper limit to that anymore.”
Harris argues the legislation sets in motion exactly what the government was trying to achieve through negotiation at the bargaining table.
“If it’s not legislating a collective agreement, it’s just a hair below that,” he said. “It’s not too much different than legislating what you want. This is a fake mediation process. Mediation is when two parties go into a discussion in order to come to a resolve that they can both live with. Given what’s in this legislation, I’m not sure how that’s possible.”
Teachers across the province are in the second day of two days of voting to decide whether to escalate their job action, which started as a teach-only campaign in September. The results of the vote won’t be known until tonight or tomorrow.
The Labor Relations Board ruled Tuesday that teachers can withdraw services for three days initially, with 48 hours notice, followed by one day a week, with notice, in the subsequent five weeks. Once legislation passes, job action will be illegal.
Harris wouldn’t predict whether teachers escalate the strike. “I don’t want to jump the gun and make predictions and say what my members are going to say. The VESTA executive is recommending a yes vote and obviously I think there’s a lot of support that we need to do something. If we go out on a withdrawal of services legally, that will be something the whole province would give a mandate on and obviously VESTA teachers stand in solidarity with our colleagues across the province. If the BCTF executive calls upon us to walk out legally and we have a successful vote, we’re going to do that.”
In a conference call with reporters Tuesday afternoon Education Minister George Abbott said it could take anywhere from a few days to as long as two or three weeks to pass the legislation depending on the BCTF’s response and the NDP’s debating strategy.
Abbott added that he’s “hugely disappointed” by Lambert’s comments on the legislation and the BCTF’s refusal to accept the net-zero mandate, which more than three quarters of other public sector unions have accepted “albeit reluctantly.”
“I am reaching the conclusion I am based on my concern that some vulnerable kids in the province are not getting the education they need, they’re not enjoying the successes they deserve as a consequence of phase one job action,” he said. “So I’m not prepared to have that go on. This is about as constructive a response as one can imagine and it is very disappointing to hear that response from Susan Lambert.”