Teacher debate could last two weeks

Debate on a bill to force an end to the teacher strike could drag into next week.

B.C. Liberal house leader Rich Coleman

VICTORIA – Unless teachers violate a Labour Relations Board ruling and extend their strike beyond Wednesday, the debate on legislation putting an end to their withdrawal of service could stretch into next week before it becomes law, B.C. Liberal house leader Rich Coleman said Monday.

In weekend interviews, B.C. Teachers’ Federation president Susan Lambert wouldn’t rule out teachers staying off the job beyond the three consecutive days granted by the LRB ruling on essential services.

The LRB ruling also allows for one day off the job in following weeks, but some B.C. school districts begin their two-week spring break the week of March 12.

Coleman said as long as the teachers’ union follows the LRB ruling, he sees no reason to accelerate passage of Bill 22, which carries the threat of heavy fines for further strike action by teachers once it is passed.

NDP house leader John Horgan said opposition MLAs will use the maximum time available to prevent passage of Bill 22, which would extend the current BCTF contract terms and permit the appointment of a mediator in the year-long dispute. NDP MLAs expect to speak for the maximum 17 hours they are permitted, which would likely extend the debate into next week.

Education Minister George Abbott said the three-day strike allows teachers to “vent” their hostility toward the government before returning to classrooms. Abbott says Bill 22 is complex, and it deserves a full debate. The legislation changes the rules for hiring teachers as well as dealing with class size and special needs support.

If the government had staged an emergency debate to push the bill through this past weekend, it could have inflamed tensions that are already running high and triggered an illegal strike, Abbott said.

The B.C. Federation of Labour announced plans on the weekend for a march of union members to the B.C. legislature on Tuesday.

“Bill 22 impacts all workers,” said B.C. Fed president Jim Sinclair. “When the right to free collective bargaining is under attack, all unions will stand together to defend that right.”

The BCTF has refused to accept the two-year “net zero” wage mandate that has been accepted by most other public sector unions. That includes public school support staff, whose members have ratified agreements in 24 school districts.

The most recent ratifications were in Rocky Mountain, Arrow Lakes, New Westminster, Burnaby and Gulf Islands districts, where employees agreed to accept no raise.