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With deficit to fix, B.C. readies bill to freeze teachers' pay

B.C. teacher Amber Schults at a school in Vancouver Feb. 21, 2012.

JOHN LEHMANN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL/JOHN LEHMANN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

The year-long showdown between British Columbia and its teachers is headed to a finale, as the government prepares legislation to impose a contract that will freeze wages – and that will allow the Liberals to eliminate the province's budget deficit in time for a general election next year.

B.C. Education Minister George Abbott will introduce legislation this week to end an escalating labour dispute with the province's 41,000 public-school teachers, aiming to impose an effective wage freeze that the government has been unable to secure in 78 bargaining sessions over the past year.

Without that freeze, British Columbia's plan to eliminate its deficit by the 2013-14 fiscal year would collapse. Any wage concession to the B.C. Teachers' Federation, which is bargaining for a 15-per-cent pay hike over three years, would trigger "me-too" clauses with other public-sector unions that have already agreed to wage freezes, instantly multiplying the cost of a settlement with the teachers. The B.C. government has taken a comparatively tough stand on public-sector pay raises, but it's an issue that most provinces are having to confront as they look to pare deficits without dramatic cuts to social services, or significant tax increases.

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That tough stand is set to get even tougher this week, with Mr. Abbott's staff spending the weekend drafting a law that will impose a contract. In a prepared statement released Sunday, the minister's office said Mr. Abbott is prepared to consider mediation – but that the government will not acquiesce to any mediated settlement that strayed beyond the "net-zero" mandate that imposes a pay freeze on public-sector workers, unless offsetting savings are found elsewhere in the contract.

At the same time, the BCTF is hardening its stand, with a planned escalation Monday of teachers' six-month-old work-to-rule campaign, and a strike vote set for Tuesday and Wednesday.

The union is calling for mediation on all issues, including wages, with BCTF president Susan Lambert blaming the government for the impasse because of its refusal to deviate from the net-zero mandate. There is no need to rush to legislation, Ms. Lambert said in an interview. "We're calling on government to slow this process down," she said. "Why the haste?"

On Saturday, school trustees from each of the province's 60 school boards narrowly passed a motion calling for mediation in the dispute, in a 32-27 vote.

Mr. Abbott announced his intention on Thursday to move to legislation, after a fact-finder's report concluded there is little chance of the two sides reaching an agreement on their own.

Since September, teachers have been collecting full pay while refusing to do administrative duties, notably producing report cards for the province's 570,000 students.

The BCTF has announced a "day of action" on Monday but the province's 1,600 public schools are expected to remain open, with union members shortening their day to 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., while holding studying sessions over the lunch hour. "Nothing will disrupt the school day," Ms. Lambert said. But teachers will not be at work for their typical pre-class preparation time, nor will they be present for any after-school activities scheduled for Monday, she acknowledged.

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Ms. Lambert warned her members are angry at the government's handling of the dispute, but said she is discouraging talk of illegal walkouts. "I don't think wildcat action is responsible," she said. The union's members launched two weeks of wildcat strikes in 2005 after their contract was imposed by legislation.

The main sticking point in the dispute is monetary. The government set a policy in 2009 to settle public-sector contracts with no new money – and a majority have settled under those terms. But the other public-sector unions have a "me-too" clause that would re-open their contracts if any other union wins a settlement that exceeds the net-zero policy.

The government fact-finder, Trevor Hughes, found that after 78 face-to-face meetings between the BCTF and the government's bargaining agent, the two sides reached agreement on only nine items. More than 1,000 issues remain outstanding.

Aside from wages, another key sticking point is the issue of class size and composition – the number of students with special needs in the classroom. Ten years ago, the B.C. government passed legislation that stripped those components from the teachers' contract. Last year, the B.C. Supreme Court threw that 2002 law out, giving the province until April 13 of this year to comply.

Mr. Abbott stated last November he would draft legislation to address the court ruling after a separate set of negotiations with the BCTF failed to reach agreement. The education minister will likely introduce that bill at the same time as the contract legislation this week, or possibly role both issues into one piece of legislation.

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About the Author
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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