Tensions still high between BCTF and province

Winter snow storms may have returned in time for spring break, but tensions don’t appear to be cooling off between teachers and the B.C. government.

On Monday, the Liberal government ended debate in the legislature over Bill 22, the Education Improvement Act. The bill, expected to be passed with a vote in the legislature on Thursday, will bring about an end to the B.C. Teachers’ Federation’s ongoing job action that escalated last week with a three-day walk out.

Bill 22 opens the doors for a mediator to settle the dispute between the BCTF, their employer, the B.C. Public School Employers’ Association and the province, provided it respects the B.C. governments’ net-zero mandate on wage increases. The BCTF is now saying, however, that the government never intended to allow an independent mediation process to take place, that it refuses to budge from “its opening position of net zero and deep, damaging concession demands.”

“We agreed to modify our proposals significantly and made it clear that teachers were willing to compromise on every objective, including salary. As I have said many times: everything is negotiable,” BCTF President Susan Lambert said in a Monday news release. “But the government’s complete intransigence at the LRB, coupled with its move to push Bill 22 through the legislature by this Thursday, have dashed any hope for a mediated settlement.”

Education Minister George Abbott maintains there is room to compromise and seek agreement through mediation on the full range of issues each party has.

“While the teacher’s union initially called for mediation, they rejected the approach set out in Bill 22 because it makes it clear that any mediated settlement must respect the net-zero mandate,” Abbott explains in a March 6 release. “This is no surprise as virtually every other public sector union in the province has signed agreements at net-zero, and government has clearly and consistently stated that the BCTF’s demands for a $2-billion increase to wages and benefits are completely unreasonable given the current economic reality.”

Subsequently, teachers associations in Kamloops, Vernon and other areas have determined that teachers will be pulling volunteer hours at the end of spring break, meaning no teacher involvement in any extra-curricular activities.

“We realize extra-curricular activities are an important part of any student’s school experience, but for us there is an even greater principle: fairness,” said Vernon Teachers’ Association president Bruce Cummings in a Tuesday news release. Cummings expects a number of teachers’ associations throughout the province will be following suit, but makes no mention of the Shuswap. The North okanagan-Shuswap Teachers’ Association office in Salmon Arm is closed from March 12 to 26 for spring break.

When teachers returned to the classroom last week, retired Salmon Arm Secondary English teacher Frank Manning took up their cause by picketing in front of Abbott’s office.

Manning says he has three grandchildren that will be going into the school system in the next couple of years and he is concerned with the level of services they’ll receive.

“And I’m incredibly angry at this government for this Bill 22 and how they’re basically attacking the union movement and destroying workers’ rights,” said Manning. “I was so angry, I was wanting to find a way to vent that anger and this is what I chose to do.”

Manning says he has seen how the school district has cut back positions over the years such as speech pathologists and counsellors. As a result, he feels that student needing extra attention will fall through the cracks.

“The kids who are bright and the kids who are average, they’re going to survive,” says Manning. “It’s the kids at the lower end that are going to suffer in the system, there’s just not going to be the services for those kids.”

School District #83 District Parents Advisory Council president Jennifer Cook has a different take. She notes that Bill 22 includes the $165 million a Learning Improvement Fund, intended to help teachers deal with class composition concerns relating to special-needs students.

“A couple of positives about Bill 22, in my opinion – and I think other parents should see it that way as well – is that it opens the door to collective bargaining and it gets the mediator appointed that they both so badly need,” says Cook. “And it establishes the Learning Improvement Fund, which was one of the main concerns from parents that I’ve talked to.”


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