Teachers will find out next Wednesday whether the government is permitted to chop their paycheques by 10 per cent as a result of ongoing strike action, a move that would amount to more than $1-million in savings per school day for the provincial government.
Representatives of the teachers' union and the government's bargaining agent, the B.C. Public School Employers' Association, were at the Labour Relations Board (LRB) for a full-day hearing on Thursday.
The employers' association argued the labour board should have no say on the wage cuts, while the B.C. Teachers' Federation said the board is the proper place to determine whether they would be a unilaterally imposed contract provision for a lower wage. The union wants the board to order a stop to the pay cuts.
Eric Harris, who represented the employers' association, said the issue should be decided by an arbitrator, not the LRB.
"Our view is the matter is extremely simple," Mr. Harris told the hearing on Thursday. "We are within our rights under the [labour] code."
The pay cut would equal $1.2-million of teachers' pay on the days they are working. That's on top of the $12-million the Ministry of Education said the government saved this week on teachers' wages due to rotating strikes, and another $4.5-million held back from support workers who refused to cross picket lines.
On Wednesday, the teachers announced four days of rotating strikes next week after the sides failed to reach an agreement during the first round of walkouts.
Teachers want smaller class sizes, more specialized teachers to provide one-on-one instruction to kids with special needs, and a 13.7-per-cent pay raise over four years. The government has offered 7.3 per cent over six years and imposed a partial lockout, preventing teachers from arriving at work more than 45 minutes before classes start or staying more than 45 minutes after.
Michael Marchbank, the public administrator on the B.C. Public School Employers' Association's board, says the employers used data from a BCTF study of teachers' daily tasks to arrive at 10 per cent. Data from a submission by the B.C. Teachers' Federation to the employment insurance commission were also factored in.
"We think that 10 per cent is a conservative number," Mr. Marchbank said.
Mr. Harris also said the partial lockout does not prevent teachers from performing duties that could be considered essential services, meaning neither the quality of learning nor students' safety is being compromised.
Because essential services are not at stake, the issue is outside the board's jurisdiction, he said.
"Therefore, there is no matter before you," Mr. Harris told the LRB.
The union said that because teachers have been declared an essential service, the employers' association must get approval from the LRB to enact a lockout or claw back teachers' wages.
Carmela Allevato, the lawyer representing the teachers' union, said that by cutting teachers' wages, the employer is essentially modifying the terms of the collective agreement, which it cannot do without a nod from the board.
"Every single time we have taken job action, it has been under the auspices of the board," Ms. Allevato said, adding that the government should have to abide by the same rules. "That's the regime that we're under."
While Ms. Allevato said the lockout is inappropriate, Mr. Harris said it was necessary to prevent teachers from doing different work instead of the duties they are not performing. Forbidding replacement tasks in this way makes it easier for the government to justify rolling back teachers' wages, Mr. Harris explained.
Also at issue in the dispute are court rulings that ordered the government to restore provisions allowing teachers to set class sizes and staffing levels that were stripped from their contracts by a previous Liberal government in 2002. The government has said restoring class sizes and composition to 2002 levels would cost $2-billion. The government is appealing the B.C. Supreme Court ruling, but the case will be not be heard until the fall.
With a report from The Canadian Press