Student demonstrations have accompanied the long teacher strike that started last spring.

Off to school, and back to court for BCTF

Court of appeal to hear arguments on who should control class size and teacher staff levels in B.C. schools

VICTORIA – Now that a cease-fire has emerged from the latest round in the war for control of B.C.’s public school system, the next court battle is ready to proceed.

Lawyers for the provincial government and the B.C. Teachers’ Federation have filed their written submissions to the B.C. Court of Appeal. At issue is whether legislation removing union contract terms that dictated class size and teacher staff levels was a violation of members’ constitutional rights to freedom of association.

When B.C. Supreme Court justice Susan Griffin found that it was, the government changed legislation again. The same judge ordered that struck down and the 2002 contract language reinstated retroactively for every contract since then, imposed or negotiated.

The government says that would create chaos as well as billions in expenses, pushing out full-day kindergarten and other allocations of space and money that have proceeded since union control was removed.

Griffin’s order is stayed pending this appeal. If you think the latest strike has been disruptive, you don’t want to see what this judge’s vision would look like.

Government lawyers argue that the BCTF’s constitutional right claim is “wrong in law” and amounts to a veto that blocks the province’s ability to legislate in response to changing conditions.

“According to the BCTF, legislation may improve on collective agreement entitlements but cannot remove them over the objections of the union without violating [the Charter of Rights and Freedoms],” the government’s submission says. “On the BCTF’s theory, collective agreement entitlements become constitutionally protected in perpetuity.”

What that would mean to voters is when they throw out an NDP government that handed the keys to the treasury to public sector unions, the unions can veto that too. And when mandated minimum teacher-librarians sitting in rooms full of paper books become the equivalent of buggy whip weavers, they must remain as long as the union wants.

BCTF’s lawyers submit that the government is wrong in fact as well as law. Its arguments are technical, dwelling particularly on the fact that the government didn’t appeal Griffin’s first ruling.

For instance, there have actually been two negotiated deals since 2002. The one in 2006 provided five years of raises and a bonus to get the government past the 2010 Olympics, and in 2012 there was a pre-election truce negotiated with the help of mediator Charles Jago.

The government argues that re-imposing 2002 conditions would overturn other contracts that were agreed to by the BCTF. BCTF’s lawyers say, in effect, the deleted terms covering working conditions weren’t there to negotiate.

The Coalition of B.C. Businesses has entered the case as an intervener, arguing for the supremacy of elected governments when providing public services.

Its submission notes that unlike private disputes, the right to strike is often curtailed in the public sector, and sometimes eliminated as in the case of police and health care.

“When critical aspects of public policy are jeopardized by employee demands, those aspects could be legislated; where a fiscal downturn or inflationary pressures required austerity measures, they could be implemented through legislation; where strikes jeopardize important public services, the legislature could pass back-to-work legislation, and so on.”

It’s been obvious for many years that the BCTF doesn’t function like a normal union, and isn’t much interested in starting to do so.

Its leadership sees itself as an agent of “social justice,” a belief demonstrated by its promotion of flawed poverty statistics and pronouncements on everything from U.S. labour law to conflict in the Middle East.

Its decades-old instruction to government is blunt: raise taxes and give us the money.

Tom Fletcher is legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press. Twitter: @tomfletcherbc