An education bill brought in to cool off the long-running labour dispute with teachers roared into a political bonfire Tuesday, with the Liberal government saying the NDP's plan to oppose the legislation opens the door to a full-blown strike that will hurt students and parents.
"We're going to oppose this legislation," NDP education critic Robin Austin said on Tuesday, hours after Education Minister George Abbott introduced Bill 22, the Education Improvement Act, to end a job action by teachers.
Premier Christy Clark said the bill, which would impose a cooling-off period and features stiff fines for teachers who break its provisions, needs to be passed quickly to lessen the opportunity for a walkout.
Teachers, who have been engaged in limited job action since September, on Tuesday obtained an interim order from the B.C. Labour Relations Board that gives the British Columbia Teachers' Federation permission to escalate its strike activity. Under the order, BCTF members could walk out for three days in the first week of stepped-up job action and one day per week in each following week.
The union is to vote on strike action this week and a walkout could happen early next week, BCTF president Susan Lambert told reporters at a press conference.
Ms. Clark, however, doesn't want that to happen.
"In order to expedite the bill, we will need the co-operation of the opposition," Ms. Clark said. "So [NDP Leader]Adrian Dix is going to have to decide if he wants to co-operate with the government in moving that legislation through the House.
"I'd certainly like to see it in place sooner rather than later. I want to make sure kids don't lose a day of school."
Asked about suggestions by other Liberal cabinet members that the bill could take up to two weeks to pass, Ms. Clark said the government has the ability to pass the legislation by early next week.
Ms. Lambert described the bill as the worst possible outcome for teachers, noting that provisions that allow teachers to bargain class size – bargaining rights lost in controversial legislation in 2002 – do not come into effect until 2013.
"Why should parents, why should students have to wait another two years on top of the 10 they have already waited?" Ms. Lambert asked. "That's a full career in school for every student in B.C. – 12 years."
The bill calls for a mediator, but Ms. Lambert denounced that process as a sham, saying the restrictions imposed by the legislation – including the government's net-zero mandate, in which any wage increases must be paid for by cuts in other areas – mean there is a foregone conclusion to the process.
On a conference call with reporters, Mr. Abbott said he was disappointed by that response.
"More than three-quarters of public servants in British Columbia have now signed on to 'net zero,' albeit reluctantly, based on their understanding that we are going through a very difficult economic time, which is not just our province, but it is Canada, it's North America, it's the entire Western world, and I think most public servants appreciate that," Mr. Abbott said.
"To say that, even though they were demanding just hours ago mediation on this, that they won't support mediation because it won't give them anything more than net zero, I think is just appallingly short-sighted."
Mr. Austin said the new bill takes the same kind of high-handed approach that the Liberals used to strip teachers' contracts a decade ago.
Last April, the B.C. Supreme Court ruled the government wrongly stripped teachers of the right to negotiate class size and composition in 2002. Under the proposed bill, those rights will be restored only when the teachers sit down to negotiate their next contract that will take effect on July 1, 2013.
In the interim, the province has provided a $165-million Learning Improvement Fund to improve special-needs services. The BCTF has said the amount falls far short of what's needed.
"A large portion of this bill is using the same sort of tactics that initially brought about that judicial statement," Mr. Austin said. "I don't think that's going to help the atmosphere between government and teachers and I don't think it's going to help the learning atmosphere for our kids."
With a report from Mark Hume in Vancouver