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UPDATED: Cowichan teachers vote tomorrow on strike action

Krista Siefken Cowichan District Teachers
Krista Siefken Cowichan District Teachers' Association members and their supporters rally outside of School District 79 headquarters Monday afternoon, protesting looming legislation that will end ongoing teacher job action.
— image credit: Krista Siefken

Cowichan teachers vote Wednesday between 2 and 5 p.m. to decide whether they support taking strike action.

But now that Education Minister George Abbott has tabled his Education Improvement Act, job action could end up costing teachers millions of dollars per day in fines.

The Labour Relations Board ruled Tuesday that teachers may initiate job action for up to three instructional days in one week, and then one day per each subsequent week, as long as at least two school days' notice is given.

Hours later, Abbott tabled legislation that could suspend all legal strike action.

The ongoing clash between B.C. teachers and the provincial government (via the B.C. Public School Employers' Association) flared last week after Abbott announced his intention to legislate an end to the educators' contract dispute.

The president of the Cowichan District Teachers' Association said she was disappointed but not surprised by Abbott's move.

"We're frustrated," Shellie Trimble said on Friday. "It's just another example of the disrespect and the underlying condemnation the government has for its teachers. It's another example of their complete disregard of the rules.

"It's ironic that Christy Clark is advocating for Anti-Bullying Day when this is a government full of bullies, who've been bullying to get what they want since they've been in power."

Teachers have protested failing contract negotiations — they've been without a collective agreement since June 2011 — by not participating in administrative tasks such as lunch-time supervision, parent-teacher interviews and filling out report cards since September.

Then, last week, labour ministry official Trevor Hughes reported a negotiated settlement between the B.C. Teachers' Federation and the B.C. Public School Employers' Association was unlikely, and Abbott announced his impending legislation.

The BCTF, meanwhile, publicly called on the government to use other labour relation mechanisms.

"It's to the point where we're getting angry," Trimble admitted. "There is a process you go through in labour disputes, and the government should let the process happen rather than stepping in.

"I hope the public realizes what the government is doing — steamrolling over decisions they don't like, or actions they don't like, and it goes against democracy."

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.

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

School District 79 trustees, meanwhile, held a special board meeting for Monday to discuss the legislation, and voted unanimously to write a letter to Abbott expressing vehement opposition to a legislated end to contract negotiations.

And CDTA members held a well-attended rally outside the board office on Monday as well.

"People need to be aware that battles like this aren't just about one union, or one issue," Trimble said. "They have far-reaching ramifications, and I just hope people are aware of that."

— with files from Tom Fletcher

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