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B.C. teachers' head would back illegal job action in wage dispute

Susan Lambert, President, BC Teachers' during a rally at the Vancouver Art Gallery in Vancouver March 7, 2012.

John Lehmann/Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/Globe and Mail

The head of the B.C. teachers' union says she is prepared to back illegal job action even though it would lead to fines that would be devastating for the organization.

"If the 41,000 members of the B.C. Teachers' Federation decide that we're going to take the action that will incur fines, then I will be incurring fines, I suppose," Susan Lambert told reporters on Monday during a break from the federation's annual general meeting.

The federation is seeking a response to back-to-work legislation after a three-day walkout prompted by an impasse over issues including pay. Teachers want a wage hike of 15 per cent over three years, while the government is offering a net-zero mandate.

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The legislation, Bill 22, bans further walkouts and work-to-rule measures, and imposes a mediator to resolve differences with the B.C. Liberal government. The teachers have been without a contract since last June.

The Education Improvement Act also raises the prospect of fines for defiance – a maximum of $475 per teacher per day during an illegal strike, plus overall fines of $1.3-million daily for the BCTF.

"Of course, we can't afford it financially," Ms. Lambert said.

But she said no protest option is being ruled out as 700 federation delegates work behind closed doors to figure out what to do. An announcement is expected by Wednesday morning.

The BCTF president has been coy about specifics, but allowed that teachers may stop participating in extracurricular activities, sue the government or incur the fines.

Ms. Lambert didn't rule out mortgaging the BCTF headquarters to pay fines. "We're looking at all the financial implications," she said in response to a question.

The headquarters is a five-storey complex near Vancouver's Olympic Village. The BCTF rents out much of the building to other enterprises and organizations.

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Ms. Lambert said she has not seen a pamphlet being circulated that touts the walkout option, but isn't surprised by its sentiment.

"That's evidence of the outrage and the anger that is in my membership."

Education Minister George Abbott said on Monday he that realizes the teachers are upset about the way things have turned out, but hopes they will be realistic.

"My hope is they will embrace the constructive path that has been put in front of them. We haven't legislated a settlement. We have legislated an opportunity for the parties, including the BCTF, to sit down and, under the guidance of a mediator, hopefully reach a mediated settlement," he said from the Chinese city of Dalian.

Mr. Abbott is on a tour of China promoting the provincial education system as an option for that country, and seeking opportunities for B.C. students to study in China.

The minister declined to comment specifically on the teachers' threat to take a financial hit in order to protest.

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Ms. Lambert also said teachers may sit out the mediation process imposed by the legislation. "It's the teachers who will tell me what to do and it's the meeting that will tell me what to do," she said.

"I am not prepared to predict the response of my members."

Under the terms of Bill 22, Mr. Abbott will appoint a mediator, although he is inviting the teachers to submit the names of candidates. He returns to B.C. on March 26, and hopes to "quite quickly" name someone who will have until the end of June to complete the assignment.

In addition to wages, the mediator would be empowered to discuss such matters as classroom organization and professional development.

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About the Author
B.C. reporter

Ian Bailey is a Vancouver-based reporter for The Globe and Mail.  He covers politics and general news. Prior to arriving at The Globe and Mail, he reported from Toronto and St. John’s for The Canadian Press.  He has also covered British Columbia for CP, The National Post and The Province. More

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