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Heat rising in teachers' dispute

Victoria looking to impose contract while teachers given approval to escalate job action

Teachers are hoping mediation, not forced legislation, will settle their labour dispute with government, says Delta Teachers' Association president Paul Steer.

"We see a third-party mediation as holding at least some potential of adverse legislation being avoided. We don't think government should invoke legislation, although the minister of education has speculated quite consistently that legislation is coming," he told the Optimist Monday.

Last Thursday, Minister of Education George Abbott instructed his staff to prepare legislation to end the current dispute. It was to come this week.

His instruction came after a ministry fact finder determined it's "very unlikely" there would be a negotiated settlement.

Steer noted the B.C. Teachers' Federation, hoping to avoid an imposed settlement, had already gone to the Labour Relations Board asking for a thirdparty mediator. He said a mediator is rarely appointed unless there's consent from both sides. The B.C. Public School Employers Association, the group negotiating on behalf of school boards, has agreed, he said.

BCTF president Susan Lambert also said they are looking for fair alternatives, such as mediation or even arbitration. She added the government, however, has no intention whatsoever of bargaining a collective agreement with teachers.

The federation says since job action began in September, the minister has repeatedly suggested that collective bargaining would not be successful and the legislature would have to act.

Meanwhile, the specter of a strike loomed large as the LRB ruled yesterday the BCTF could initiate job action up to and including a full withdrawal of services for a maximum of three instructional days, with notice of not less than two school days. It ruled teachers may withdraw all duties for one out of five days per week, again with notice of not less than two days.

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

"But given the government's ongoing refusal to meet us half way, we're compelled to try to increase the pressure on both our employer and government."

Delta school trustee Laura Dixon said the board of education is monitoring the situation.

"As always, Delta remains very concerned about preserving our high quality working relationship with our teachers... we certainly would encourage both parties to come to a quick resolution," she said.

The BCTF recently tabled a new bargaining position, calling for a 15 per cent pay hike in a three-year deal. The union has also modified some of its proposals for improved benefits.

The total cost of the union's new proposals is estimated at $300 million.

The union's contract expired last June, but it's made little progress in talks with the BCPSEA.

The BCTF had demanded wages that are in line with those in Alberta and Ontario, a sharp contrast from the BCPSEA's position. Abbott has insisted the teachers' contract abide by the government's net-zero mandate for public sector workers.

Teachers have been involved in limited job action since the start of the new school year, including refusing to write report cards. More recently, they refused to take part in the Foundation Skills Assessment exams administered annually, forcing principals and vice-principals to take on that role.

Teachers took part in "a day of action" Monday, which saw them show up at first bell and immediately leave at last bell.

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