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Nelson union president reacts to moves to stop teachers' strike

Nelson District Teachers
Nelson District Teachers' Association president Tom Newell addresses the crowd of teachers that gathered for the provincial day of action at Hume Elementary on Monday afternoon.
— image credit: Bob Hall photo

New legislation tabled today by Education Minister George Abbott could mean if Nelson teachers go on strike, they would potentially be facing some hefty fines.

“It’s an awful draconian step by a government to impose such a contract on teachers and to take away the parties rights to negotiate a collective agreement,” said Tom Newell, president of the Nelson District Teachers' Association.

As the Labour Relations Board gave BC teachers a green light to strike for up to three days next week, Education Minister George Abbott tabled legislation Tuesday that would suspend all strike action and could impose millions of dollars in fines per day if a strike persists.

As the legislature debates the "Education Improvement Act," the B.C. Teachers' Federation could legally walk off the job as early as Monday. Teachers are to complete their own vote on that option Wednesday.

“A legal strike is one thing, and we still don’t know what the membership will vote on that… voting to not accept the legislated contract is a completely different [scenario] for people,” said Newell.

The LRB ruled Tuesday that teachers can legally strike for up to three consecutive days in one week after two days' notice, and a further one day in each subsequent week with the same notice. That could continue until the new bill passes the legislature.

Abbott said the legislation imposes a six-month "cooling-off period" and sets up appointment of a mediator to look at non-monetary issues such as class size and composition. A separate penalty provision would be enacted if necessary, Abbott said, imposing a fine of $1.3 million a day on the BCTF and up to $475 a day on individual teachers who strike in defiance of the new legislation.

Abbott said the timing of imposing the cooling-off period depends on whether the NDP opposition holds up the bill or lets it pass in the legislature.

BCTF president Susan Lambert said teachers are reluctantly considering a full walkout, after a work-to-rule campaign since last September where they have refused to complete report cards or meet with administrators.

"Teachers would prefer to be engaging in a meaningful mediation process to resolve this dispute rather than escalating it,” BCTF President Susan Lambert said.

The legislation extends the current teacher contract terms until June 2013, imposing the government's two-year "net zero" wage mandate that most other government have agreed to voluntarily. It gives a yet-to-be-named mediator until June 30 to seek agreement on issues other than pay and benefits, such as class size and composition.

The legislation also puts in place a new fund to address class size and special needs support, to respond to a court decision last year that said those issues were taken out of teacher contracts without adequate consultation. It provides $30 million extra this year, $60 million next year and $75 million each year after that, amounts the BCTF has rejected as far too little.

The legislation imposes a new teacher evaluation and selection process that Abbott acknowledged will be controversial.

- With files from Tom Fletcher

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