Hardworking British Columbia Teachers Deserve Our Support

I hope that the strike is a short one and that it settles by the time The LINK goes to press. If it does not, it will be the government’s fault.

By Harinder Mahil

After months of negotiations, British Columbia’s public school teachers were forced to go on strike as of Tuesday, June 17. The BC Teachers’ Federation President Jim Iker said Monday the provincial government did not respond to the Union’s proposal presented last Friday until Sunday evening, almost 48 hours later.

“The government was unprepared, unwilling and ultimately unhelpful,” said Iker in a press conference on Monday. “We made a lot of moves, we waited 48 hours… and what we got back is worse what we got previously.” Education Minister Peter Fassbender warned the teachers that the government’s latest offer is “about as good as it’s going to get.”

I hope that the strike is a short one and that it settles by the time The LINK goes to press. If it does not, it will be the government’s fault.

How does the Union negotiate with an employer who establishes ground rules for the negotiations and who has the power to send teachers back to work by legislative hammer?

British Columbia’s teachers have my support and that of the hundreds of thousands of British Columbians who oppose cuts to public education.

The BC government has shown again and again that it does not negotiate with teachers in good faith. This is the same government that had assured public sector workers during the 2001 election campaign that there were no plans to roll back collective agreements. However, soon after the election, the government used its legislative majority to pass three laws to take away what had been negotiated by workers in the education and health care sectors. With respect to teachers, the government passed legislation, the Education Improvement Act, which did away  collective agreement terms and prohibited collective bargaining on issues related to class size, class composition, and supports for special needs students.

The teachers challenged the constitutionality of the legislation in the Supreme Court of British Columbia. In April 2011, the court issued a declaration that the legislation interfered with teachers’ collective bargaining rights and breached s. 2(d) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. An order striking down the legislation was suspended by the Court for 12 months to grant the government time to address the decision.

Upon expiry of the 12 month suspension period, the government enacted virtually identical legislation. The government took the position that the new legislation followed consultations with the Union undertaken in good faith, and contained a material difference from the prior legislation by limiting the prohibition on collective bargaining about working conditions.

The Union challenged the new legislation including its net zero mandate for collective agreements. The Court once again, in a decision released in January 2014, decided in favour of the Union. The Court stated that the discussions between the Province and the Union did not cure the unconstitutionality of the legislation or immunize the subsequent similar legislation from further constitutional challenge. The Court stated that the government’s discussions with the union were not undertaken in good faith, as the Province utilized a strategy designed to provoke a strike in order to gain political support for imposition of the legislation upon the Union.

With this type of history, I am not surprised that the Union is skeptical in negotiating with the government.

It is shameful that the teachers are forced to go on strike. They should be in classrooms educating our children. I urge the government to get serious and negotiate a collective agreement with the BC Teachers’ Federation.

Harinder Mahil is a community activist and a director of the Dr. Hari Sharma Foundation and can be contacted at hmahil@telus.net.

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