As Education Minister George Abbott kicked off a process to impose a contract on the province's teachers, a union official decried the move as rushed and heavy-handed, and called on the government to consider alternatives.
"I am dismayed to see the haste with which the Minister of Education has ordered legislation," British Columbia Teachers' Federation president Susan Lambert said on Thursday, hours after Mr. Abbott announced he had asked staff to start preparing contract legislation for teachers, who have been engaged in limited job action since September.
Ms. Lambert maintained that "bullying legislation" would exacerbate tension between teachers and the government, already at loggerheads over contract talks and related issues of class size and composition.
The BCTF has asked for a mediator to be appointed in the dispute.
Mr. Abbott, however, said too much time has already gone by without a resolution.
And, as he has before, Mr. Abbott said he was not prepared to let the school year wrap up without full report cards and collaborative meetings between teachers and principals, both of which have been affected by teachers' job action.
"From my perspective, it is unacceptable that this situation continue," Mr. Abbott told reporters on a conference call, adding that a chasm remains between the parties despite nearly 80 bargaining sessions over the past year. "When adults can't reach a respectful agreement on these things, it is always the students who pay the price."
Legislation could be introduced as early as next week, he said. Mr. Abbott would not discuss the terms of the contract but said it would reflect the government's net-zero mandate.
B.C. brought in the net-zero mandate in 2009, citing tough economic times, and is sticking to it in the current round of bargaining even though some unions are near or at the end of two years of a wage freeze. The current bargaining mandate calls for "co-operative gains," which would allow wage increases only if savings are found in other areas.
A wage proposal the BCTF put forward in January for a 15-per-cent increase over three years was immediately rejected by the province.
Teachers are planning a "day of action" on Monday, when lunch-hour meetings will focus on the latest developments in labour talks.
The B.C. teachers have a rocky labour history. They were last legislated back to work in 2005, which was followed by a wildcat strike that went on for two weeks.
Asked about the possibility of a walkout, Ms. Lambert said the BCTF is consulting members to consider next steps.
A mediator or even arbitration would be a better option, she insisted.
Mr. Abbott said he would be open to a mediator – but only on non-monetary issues.
Others supported the idea.
"I would bring in a mediator, someone who could go in and crack some heads seriously, because obviously these parties are quite far apart," New Democratic Party education critic Robin Austin said. "I think that's a better way than using the heavy hand of the legislature to come in and impose a contract."
Mr. Abbott's announcement followed the release of a report by a government-appointed industrial-relations officer, who looked at the possibility of a negotiated settlement between the province and teachers.
In his report, released on Thursday, Trevor Hughes said a negotiated settlement was "very unlikely."
With a report from Justine Hunter in Victoria