BCTF president calls for binding arbitration in teacher strike

VANCOUVER — BCTF president Jim Iker called for binding arbitration in the teachers’ strike and said if the government agrees he will ask members to vote on ending the strike.

Iker said the BCTF does not want matters before the courts to be included in the binding arbitration.

Meanwhile, if public pressure continues to mount in the coming weeks, the B.C. government will look for a way to end the teachers’ strike, according to one labour expert.

Labour lawyer and past vice-chair of the Labour Relations Board Ritu Mahil said she expects the government will make a claim for essential service levels to be established after the next couple weeks. In fact, she said she would be surprised if both sides aren’t already working on their arguments.

This is the longest school strike in B.C.’s history, so far closing schools for 16 days, albeit split over two school years. Mahil said this strike is unique for three reasons: that it is taking place at the beginning of the school year, that it is a full-scale strike, and that is appears to be indefinite.

“It’s a really interesting dispute because we’ve never dealt with anything like this before,” Mahil said. “At the end of June, when you were almost at the end of the school year and it went into a full-scale strike, at that point the students had already got the requisite hours and everything like that, so you knew in two weeks they would be on summer holidays. But now, you’re at the beginning of the school year, and who knows?”

Both Education Minister Peter Fassbender and Premier Christy Clark have said they want a negotiated settlement rather than a legislated deal or an LRB-enforced return to work.

“They won’t do it yet, but at some point, there is that pressure. When you’re past the two-week point, they may have to reconsider it,” Mahil said.

Although the LRB has the authority to instigate an essential service designation on its own, normally that doesn’t happen because it would prefer to see the two sides resolve their own disputes, Mahil said.

She said parents are not a party to the dispute, so they cannot apply to the LRB to initiate an essential services declaration, but can act by putting public pressure on the teachers and the government to strike a deal.

The Labour Relations Board said in 2011 that students could lose up to two weeks of a school year without serious and immediate damage to their education.

“The board has said that a two-week strike doesn’t meet the test of immediate and serious disruption to education because there is spring break and winter break and we know that the system can absorb an absence of that duration. They can always make it up by lengthening the class day or shortening Pro-D days or providing tutorials or homework,” Mahil said.

She said it’s key that we’re now at the start of a new school year.

“Really, in many respects, it’s like we’re now in day three,” she said Thursday. “When you talk about the 16-day strike, it is the same dispute that gave rise to those essential services orders earlier this year and it is the same strike, but we’re at day three of the school year.”

If an essential services designation was sought and the two sides didn’t agree to a process, it could result in a lengthy, complicated hearing. She said the board has never before had to consider what is essential for different grades.

“What’s essential for a kindergarten student is going to be different to what’s essential for a Grade 12 student,” Mahil said. “We know the two-week mark doesn’t meet the test for an immediate and serious disruption, but then is it the three-week mark or the three-month mark?”

Mahil said she cannot see a compromise on the parts of the bargaining that are affected by the B.C. Supreme Court case that is scheduled for appeal in October.

“I wish I could come up with some magical solution here but I just don’t see a compromise on this one piece,” Mahil said. “There is such an emotional response from the union because of the history behind stripping it out.”

She said if both sides were to agree to binding arbitration it might be a way to break the impasse.

“But you would need agreement on both sides and they would have to agree to the … arbitrator,” Mahil said. “Then it’s in the hands of a neutral party. But they’d both have to be willing to live with the consequences.”

Mahil served as an LRB vice-chair for five years and adjudicated a decision about extracurricular activities during a teachers’ job action.

Meanwhile, for at least the third time in recent weeks, the education minister called on teachers to suspend their strike so that schools can open. The B.C. Teachers’ Federation has said its members are resolved and not prepared to suspend their strike.

“Today, I asked (the B.C. Public School Employers’ Association) to confirm with the union that even though mediation has not yet commenced, BCPSEA will unilaterally extend its commitment to forego all lock out activities until further notice,” Fassbender said in a statement Thursday. “I am once again asking the BCTF to lift their pickets and suspend all strike activity while we try to negotiate an agreement. Even though we are not yet in mediation, we need to get students back in the classroom and teachers back to work.

“If the BCTF agrees, schools could reopen within two days.”

Iker said the BCTF isn’t going to suspend its strike and he called on the government to resume bargaining.

“The government needs to drop E80 and negotiate fairly with teachers so we can end the strike,” Iker said.

E80 is a government proposal that the teachers say would nullify their two wins in B.C. Supreme Court that said the government stripped their contracts illegally in 2002.

Parents of schoolchildren age 12 and under are eligible for the $40-a-day support payment offered by the government during the strike. As of 11 a.m. Thursday, 63 per cent of eligible B.C. public school students had registered for the money, which will be paid out four weeks after the month in which the strike is settled. Parents can register at bcparentinfo.ca.

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