Kelowna teachers rally as job action escalates

Central Okanagan Teachers
Central Okanagan Teachers' Association president Alice Rees, front, lead teachers in a rally over Highway 97 Monday as the BC Teachers' Federation prepared to escalate job action.
— image credit: Jennifer Smith

The government is intentionally focusing attention on salary increases it always knew were negotiable in order to avoid discussing cuts to funding for education, the Central Okanagan Teachers' Association says.

Monday afternoon COTA president Alice Rees said she believes the government has used wage increases during this economic downturn to defeat teachers in the public eye, avoiding discussion on consistent funding clawbacks and a Supreme Court ruling that found those cuts unconstitutional.

"The value of education in this province has dropped annually and they're using the recession to beat us up," said Rees, who lead teachers in a rally on the Highway 97 overpass at 4 p.m.

Each year, since 2002, the government has removed an average of $300 million from education funding, leaving teachers with less and less resources to work with, Rees said.

"Teachers are very upset," she added with a voice crackling with a heavy cold.

In 2004, under then Education Minister Christie Clark, the government withdrew the teachers' right to negotiate over class size and composition from their contract. A B.C. Supreme Court ruling has since stated the move was unconstitutional, ordering the government to reinstate those negotiating powers and come to an agreement over the funding lost in the process.

Kelowna teachers rallyYet attention the matter, and really any matter outside wage demands, has flagged over the course of this year as Education Minister George Abbott stresses a zero-zero-zero wage increase mandate is critical to the government—both for the teachers' contract negotiations, and negotiations with other public sector employees.

Mid-Monday, Abbott told national news outlets he would introduce legislation to impose a contract as early as this morning (Tuesday, Feb. 28), which is expected to allow for mediation on some of the class size and composition issues, provided the net-zero wage mandate holds.

He told legislative reporters the provincewide job action, and threats to escalate to a strike that Monday's rally introduced, had him concerned for students' education.

"This dispute is having an impact on students," said Abbott in a Globe and Mail story issued at 2 p.m. Monday. "We know there are more than a few instances where students have failed courses and are in jeopardy of failing grades because there have not been the collaborative meetings which would have led to remedial strategies."

The teachers, meanwhile, were headed to the Labour Relations Board at 6:30 p.m. for a ruling on whether they could strike. What the strike would look like was unclear, though BCTF representatives were saying they would ask for conditions falling within the parameters of the essential services legislation now governing the profession.

Locally, it means teachers will be voting on whether to move to the full-scale strike once the LRB rules and it is clear what the options on the table look like, Rees said.

"We'll have all of the organizations in the schools run a vote on Wednesday asking teachers if they're prepared to escalate the strike," she said.

Last June teachers gave a 90 per cent mandate to do so under an LRB regulated vote; and the government has previously indicated it could handle up to a two-week walkout.

The Kelowna rally was timed to match protests around the province including one in Victoria where teachers were expected to descend on the Legislature lawn at the same time teachers in Kelowna took to the overpass in front of the Landmark complex and Parkinson Recreation Centre to catch motorists' eyes on the commute.

The union, which represents 41,000 teachers provincewide, has been locked in a contract dispute with the government for over a year, with the teachers' contract expiring last June 2011.

Job action officially started in September, after both sides took the summer off before resuming negotiations late August.

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