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Teacher job action expected to escalate next week

Union leaders opt for three-day strike starting Monday

Delta teachers are expected to be off the job next week.

On Wednesday, a B.C. Teachers Federation membership vote gave the green light for the union to escalate job action in response to the provincial government's latest move in the ongoing labour dispute.

Union leaders met Thursday to decide how to proceed, opting to begin a three-day strike Monday.

The B.C. Labour Relations Board this week ruled the union may 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. Subsequently, teachers may withdraw all duties for one out of five days per week, again with notice of not less than two days.

Following Tuesday's LRB decision, Education Minister George Abbott moved to thwart job action by saying he'd introduce a bill in the legislature banning a strike and ordering a "cooling-off period."

The Education Improvement Act is to prevent strike action while the year-long contract dispute goes to a mediator. However, the bill isn't expected to pass until mid-week at the earliest. That means teachers would be able to walk off the job at the beginning of the week, but they are prevented from legally taking further strike action once the bill is passed.

The bill includes stiff financial penalties for teachers that stage an illegal walkout.

Once passed, the cooling off period will last until the end of August.

Delta school trustee and board vice-chair Laura Dixon said in the event of job action next week the district has a plan that will be communicated to parents through school principals. She noted there wouldn't be enough staff to supervise children in the schools in the event of a full-scale walkout.

Prior to the introduction of the Education Improvement Act, the Ministry of Education had been preparing legislation to impose a contract settlement for teachers.

The teachers' union has insisted it would rather have the province agree to third-party mediation or arbitration.

Although the government has agreed to mediation, a key condition on the mediator is the government's a "net-zero mandate" must be followed, meaning no additional money would be offered.

Delta Teachers' Association president Paul Steer told the Optimist this week

he's concerned the government is setting up the mediation process to fail.

"It appears to be conciliatory, but it is not really conciliatory at all. What it does is kind of meditating an outcome that's profoundly unacceptable to teachers and educators or anyone who values collective bargaining rights," Steer said.

BCTF president Susan Lambert characterized Bill 22 as "a destructive act of legislative vandalism that will violate collective bargaining rights for teachers and have a profoundly negative impact on learning conditions for students."

However, Abbott said most people are characterizing the bill as a "measured, thoughtful, balanced and constructive" approach to a dispute that has been going on for almost a year with little chance of a resolution.

Saying he's concerned statements by the teachers' union will prevent teachers from getting accurate and factual information, Abbott noted, "I am disappointed by the initial comments coming from the teachers' union. In the most frustrating example - the union has been asking for mediation. Now, they are rejecting the idea simply because the mediator is required to strike a genuine balance in the discussions by looking at what both parties want so we can put the needs of students first."

The government also promised to add $165 million to a Learning Improvement Fund over the next three years to help special-needs students. Teachers will also be allowed to once again bargain class-size and composition starting in 2013.

Lambert wondered why their bargaining rights on class size and composition will be delayed until after the next election.

Abbott said he hopes the teachers' union will drop the rhetoric and that cooler heads will prevail.