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Teachers rally in Cloverdale

Attendees of a Surrey Teachers
Attendees of a Surrey Teachers' Association rally enter the Cloverdale Agriplex Monday afternoon.
— image credit: Boaz Joseph photo

Teachers across B.C. were predicted to vote tomorrow and Wednesday on whether the current ‘teach-only’ job action will be ramped up to a full-scale walkout.

Meanwhile, a rally of Surrey Teachers’ Association members Monday afternoon was one of the highest profile events in a province-wide ‘day of action’ by teachers resisting imposition of a legislated contract – which Education Minister George Abbott has announced will be introduced this week.

Speakers at the rally, at the Cloverdale Agriplex, included BC Federation of Labour president Jim Sinclair, BC Teachers’ Federation president Susan Lambert and Surrey Teachers’ Association president Denise Moffat.

In a statement released before the rally, Moffat said the B.C. Supreme Court had ruled last April that the government had “acted illegally and unconstitutionally when it imposed legislation that stripped out negotiated language from (the) teachers’ collective agreement” 10 years ago.

“Now, Minister Abbott says his government will legislate again,” Moffat said.

“When will they learn?”

In a statement issued on the weekend, Abbott said the union has the right to canvass its members on whether to escalate strike action.

“However, it is clear that this strike is hurting students and any escalation in strike action will only increase the harm to students and the impact on parents,” he said, adding the government’s legislation is aimed at providing all parties with “certainty.”

“The NDP opposition’s response to (the) legislation will determine how much certainty is possible in the days ahead.”

B.C.’s 41,000 teachers have been without a contract since June 30.

Their job action, begun in September, has included refusing administrative duties – including playground supervision and filling out report cards – and led to cutting back of some extracurricular activities.

As of Monday, teachers are now arriving minutes before the first bell and leaving immediately after the last bell each day.

The deadlock in contract negotiations has been blamed on the government’s adherence to a zero-increase policy in negotiations on all public-sector wages and benefits packages.

But Abbott has blamed BCTF intransigence for the situation, noting the government has signed contracts with three-quarters of its public unions under the “net-zero” policy.

While it would consider mediation, Abbott said, it would have to fall within the “net-zero” mandate.

The BC Teachers' Federation would need approval from the Labour Relations Board before expanding the job action to a full-scale strike, since education has been ruled an essential service.

At Monday’s rally, Moffat also spoke to members about class-size composition and the ratio of specialist teachers to students which were removed from the teachers’ contract through the previous legislated agreement.

Moffat told the Peace Arch News before the rally that while there are indications the government plans some kind of “correction” in new legislation, the removal of the language from the previous contract has had a significant impact.

“For Surrey, it meant 346 fewer teachers, of which 262 were specialist teachers providing support to students with learning challenges,” she said. “For a growing school district this is very important.”

Iglika Ivanova, a researcher for the B.C. branch of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, also talked to members about the lack of funding for public education in the current B.C. budget.

Moffat said the absence of funding would not only threaten the current collective agreement, but that “it would not even replace what we have this year, as they’re not funding for inflation.”

In a statement released Friday, the BC Federation of Labour rejected claims from Abbott and Premier Christy Clark that “there is a crisis, there is no way forward and that legislation will end the dispute and restore normalcy to our schools.”

The statement, signed by B.C. Fed member organizations representing more than 450,000 members of public- and private-sector unions, said government-appointed fact-finder Trevor Hughes and school adminstrators have confirmed the current job action has had minimal impact on classroom learning or students’ needs for graduation, and that parents in many cases are receiving more detailed and up-to-date reports on their children’s progress than under the usual report card system.

It said the BCTF has demonstrated a desire to abide by a settlement reached through mediation or arbitration, but warned that a legislated contract would prolong conflict, and thereby ensure a negative impact on the learning environment.

Moffat called the government’s previous legislation of contracts “heavy-handed and disrespectful” and said it had “failed to build a better relationship” between teachers and their employers.

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