VANCOUVER — British Columbia schools could be shuttered as early as the start of next week if teachers elect to take advantage of a short window to stage a legal strike while the government pushes through legislation to suspend job action.
The year-long teachers’ dispute came to a head Tuesday when the union won the right to walk off the job and the government introduced legislation imposing a cooling-off period in hopes of averting any ongoing walkout.
The Labour Relations Board ruled teachers were allowed to take an initial three-day strike, and then one day per week afterwards, as long as parents were given two days advance notice.
Hours later, Education Minister George Abbott stood in the legislature to announce a bill that would suspend all strike and lockout activities. He also appointed a mediator to develop a set of non-binding recommendations by the end of the school year.
But the union representing the teachers rejected the bill as a “political” and “phoney” process that will only lead to a “pre-determined” end to the ongoing dispute, and said teachers will decide as early as Thursday whether to act on their newly won right to strike.
It means a strike could commence by early next week.
“This is a government that uses rhetoric and misleads,” Susan Lambert, president of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation told reporters in Vancouver.
“This is a government, in fact, that is proposing a sham mediation process — one that is in a very tight box that must address the strips that the government is demanding on the table.”
The government’s house leader said the legislation could be debated all next week and it could be the following week before it’s passed.
Rich Coleman said the government has no plans to fast-track debate on the legislation. But he also said that could change.
“We’ll let the legislation be debated as long as things go along as normal and people stay within the law,” Coleman said.
“Right now, we’ve had this work-to-rule thing. Does it matter if it’s another week to 10 days to legislate a contract to settle this thing?”
Abbott said Bill 22, the Education Improvement Act, extends the current expired contract to allow the mediator to work with all sides to reach a new deal that still falls within the government’s net-zero wage mandate.
He said if no solution is found by the time school resumes in the fall, the government will impose a contract.
“I do not want to see students have to go through what they’ve experienced this year again,” Abbott said.
“We did not come to this point to have a strike in September, I can assure you.”
Teachers were to vote Tuesday and Wednesday on whether to initiate the job action. Asked whether they would consider a further, illegal strike, Lambert said the union will analyze its options.
“The punitive fines for contravention of the act are outrageous, and a deliberate attempt to intimidate, bully and bludgeon,” she said.
The act includes stiff financial penalties for the union, employer and individuals in the event of an illegal strike.