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Returning B.C. teachers vow to keep up pressure against Bill 22

B.C. teachers rally at the Vancouver Art Gallery in Vancouver, March 7, 2012.

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

Teachers are expected back in class on Thursday but it won't be back to normal, as the British Columbia Teachers' Federation has vowed to continue its fight against the government's controversial Bill 22 and walkouts could resume as early as next week.

There's also uncertainty around what students can expect in classrooms Thursday, when some teachers have been urged to work "bell-to-bell" and not during lunch time or after school.

As part of limited job action that began in September, teachers have not been doing some work, such as filling out report cards or supervising detention.

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Whether a bell-to-bell approach differs from that phase 1 strike action is unclear, said Deborah Stewart of the British Columbia Public School Employers' Association.

"We won't know until we see what it looks like," Ms. Stewart said Wednesday, adding that the details of what teachers are allowed to turn down have been spelled out by the Labour Relations Board.

"If we think there are things that they are not doing that the order doesn't cover, it would be a matter of going back to the LRB," Ms. Stewart said.

The province's 41,000 teachers walked off the job for three days this week after seeking permission from the LRB to ramp up their job action. Under an LRB order, teachers were allowed to be off the job for three days this week and for one day a week in subsequent weeks, providing the BCTF gave two days notice of a walkout. The government, meanwhile, is debating Bill 22, legislation introduced last week that would impose a cooling-off period, prohibit further strike activity and impose hefty fines for strikes or lockouts.

The bill, introduced after more than a year of negotiations between BCPSEA, the government's bargaining agent, and the BCTF has been roundly rejected by the union and condemned at boisterous rallies Tuesday in Victoria and Wednesday in Vancouver.

The government says the legislation, crafted under a net-zero mandate that requires any wage increases to be offset by cuts in other areas, is reasonable and restores some rights stripped from collective agreements in 2002, when the Liberals took office in B.C.

The BCTF says the bill, as written, would further restrict teachers' rights to negotiate a fair contract and does not address shortfalls of the 2002 legislation. A B.C. Supreme Court decision last year found parts of that legislation unconstitutional and gave the government a year, until April, 2012, to fix it.

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With a majority in the legislature, the Liberals can push through the legislation, but teachers have vowed to resist it even when it becomes law.

"When they do push this legislation through, they need to know that we have just begun," BCTF president Susan Lambert said at the downtown Vancouver rally on Wednesday. "The teachers of B.C. will defend public education with all our wits and all our strength."

Speaking to reporters in Victoria, Education Minister George Abbott said he remained open to meeting with Ms. Lambert to discuss the bill.

But he said he wouldn't budge on net-zero.

"It would be bad faith to say to the 138 unions and locals that have signed on to net-zero that net-zero was good enough for them but it's not good enough for the teachers' federation," he said.

And he said he would be prepared to explore the idea of using savings from the strike – which have been estimated at more than $30-million – to improve wages if the BCTF agreed to talk to the government about ways to use the $165-million Learning Improvement Fund that is part of the legislation.

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"We're open to the conversation here but we've never been able to have it," Mr. Abbott said.

At the rally, North Vancouver teacher Sunny Slykerman said she was angered at provisions of the bill that push class size and composition concerns into 2013, rather than putting them on the table now.

"The biggest thing is how they addressed the illegal contract stripping they did in 2002," said Ms. Slykerman. "The way they responded is by doing it again."

With a report from Justine Hunter in Victoria

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About the Author
National correspondent

Based in Vancouver, Wendy Stueck has covered technology and business and now reports on British Columbia issues including natural resources, aboriginal issues and urban affairs. More

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