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The Globe and Mail

Hard-line strategy over B.C. teacher action considered

Grade 8 students at Gordon Head Middle school in Victoria, January 12, 2011.

Arnold Lim For The Globe and Mail/arnold lim The Globe and Mail

With contract talks about to resume, the B.C. Public School Employers' Association is looking at a possible hard-line negotiating strategy to turn up the pressure on teachers engaged in job action.

Options being considered include cutting the wages and benefits of teachers during the labour dispute and possibly locking them out, according to a BCPSEA discussion document leaked to the British Columbia Teachers' Federation.

"It seems a desperate attempt to me by people trying to put pressure on teachers," Susan Lambert, president of the BCTF, said Tuesday.

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Ms. Lambert said the four-page document was part of a much larger briefing package prepared for the association as the two sides head back to the bargaining table Thursday after last meeting about a week ago.

Melanie Joy, chair of the association, said the paper raises options "for discussion," but they aren't policy yet.

"They would only be used after thoughtful consideration … we don't even know if we'll get to that point," she said.

Ms. Joy said all the options discussed are available under the B.C. Labour Relations Code.

"They weren't specifically pulled out to inflame the teachers, these are things that employers have, these sort of options, when your employees are on strike," she said.

Ms. Lambert, however, said the approach outlined in the paper is "quite incredible. Quite irresponsible."

She said teachers are already "under incredible pressure" because they are working in a system that is underfunded, and have been trying to get a new contract since the current one expired last spring.

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"The reason we are [taking job action]is because we are at the end of our tethers … teachers don't take a 98-per-cent strike vote … without being incredibly frustrated," she said.

For a month, teachers have been refusing to do administrative duties, such as filling out forms and supervising recess.

The discussion paper suggests one option to put pressure on teachers is to cut their pay.

"In industrial settings, pay is generally by hourly rate. A strike against certain job functions usually means fewer hours of work and therefore fewer hours of pay," it states.

But Ms. Lambert said teachers are working just as hard as ever by spending more time on student issues and less on administrative chores.

The paper also states that the employer could require teachers to pay health and benefit premiums during the labour dispute.

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"During past strike activity, districts have continued benefits and not requested the union tender payment for benefits," the document states.

And it says lockouts are "the right of employers just as strikes are the right of unions."

But the paper cautions that "the public perception" of a lockout is a significant concern.

In Victoria, Education Minister George Abbott said the government is not considering a lockout – that would be up to the association, and he would want to discuss it with them before they took such action.

Mr. Abbott, who has been busy negotiating with the teachers on a second front, also set out his proposed plan to boost funding for special-needs students in classrooms.

Mr. Abbott said the additional funding, promised in the Throne Speech on Monday, would start at $30-million next year, rising to $75-million annually by 2014.

The offer is the government's response to a Supreme Court ruling last spring that ruled invalid a law that stripped teachers of the right to negotiate the makeup of classrooms – that is the total number of students as well as the number of special-needs students integrated into each class.

The BCTF walked away from the talks related to the court ruling last month, and have gone back to court seeking a clarification they hope will force the government to move. The court will hear the appeal on Oct. 11.

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About the Authors
National correspondent

Mark Hume is a National Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver, writing news and feature stories on a daily basis about his home province of British Columbia. His weekly column, which often challenges the orthodoxy on environmental issues, appears every Monday. More

B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More

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