Teachers took their pickets to the streets at Phoenix School on Monday.

Campbell River teachers thumb their noses at the government

Fighting to save the B.C. education system, they say

Campbell River teachers put up “stick-it” lines early this week in a fight for what teachers say are their democratic rights.

“We want to make sure the public understands this is not about getting money, it’s about saving a system that’s being destroyed right now,” said Jerry Horton, local representative of the Campbell River District Teachers Association, at the association’s general meeting Monday evening at Thunderbird Hall.

Teachers across B.C. are fighting the provincial government for tabling legislation to end the contract dispute between the B.C. Teachers Federation, the government and the B.C. Public School Employers’ Association and force teachers back to work. Teachers have been without a contract since June 2011.

“The reality is it just doesn’t involve teachers,” said Neil Thompson, president of the local teachers association. “The reality is, it’s about protecting our democratic rights and free collective bargaining. They’re trying to legislate a deal on us with the pretense that they couldn’t negotiate a deal at the table.”

Teachers walked off the job Monday morning and are expected to return to work Thursday. Throughout the three-day strike, teachers walked the streets around local schools, holding signs and distributing informational pamphlets to the public. Under the Labour Relations Board ruling, teachers are allowed to strike for three consecutive days and then once per week after that but are prohibited from setting up picket lines and blocking access to schools.

On Tuesday, several local teachers joined hundreds of their colleagues from across the province in Victoria for a rally outside the Legislature, where MLA’s debated the government’s legislation, Bill 22, inside. Liberal house leader Rich Coleman said it could take two weeks for the bill to pass, which means teacher strike action could continue into next week – for one day.

Bill 22 imposes a cooling off period until August 31 and extends the teachers’ current contract. During that time, teachers are not allowed to strike and any illegal job activity comes with hefty fines – $475 per strike day day for individual teachers, $2,500 each day for officials and $1.3 million a day for the union. The bill also appoints a government-appointed mediator and includes changes to special-needs education funding, classroom sizes and teacher bargaining rights. The bill caps kindergarten classes at 22 students while Grade 1-3 classes cannot exceed 24. Most Grade 4-12 classes can have up to 30 students and in those classes that exceed the cap, teachers will receive additional compensation. Exceptions to the cap are classes such as band and drama.

Jenny Garrels, member of the B.C. Federation of Teachers staff, said Bill 22 takes away teachers’ right to free bargaining and strips teachers of the right to negotiate class size and composition.

“It’s not good news,” Garrels said at Monday’s teachers meeting. “The bill robs us of our rights and hurts children in our classrooms. It’s a callous move.”

Teachers are asking for a 15 per cent cost of living increase over three years, as well as improved classroom size and composition. The government, on the other hand, is standing firm on its net zero mandate, meaning no wage increases unless a savings can be found within the teachers union’s contract.

Thompson said the government’s salary freeze is unrealistic.

“It’s not a zero mandate, it’s a negative three when you factor in the cost of living,” Thompson said. “Their reality is, I think, a little skewed.”

Teachers say the net zero mandate has “hand-cuffed” previous mediators in contract negotiations and with a government appointed mediator it will be no different.

“A mediator is needed, but it’s a sham because the mediator is appointed by the government,” Garrels said.

Meanwhile, the Labour Relations Board has already appointed its own mediator.

“It’s unprecedented, having two mediators,” Garrels said. “The Labour Relations Board appointed an independent mediator that’s not hand-cuffed by the net zero mandate.”

In the meantime, Campbell River teachers are planning a march today, starting at Robert Ostler Park at noon and ending at Spirit Square.