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Liberal strategy to provoke teacher strike

British Columbia's Opposition New Democrats revealed the contents of court transcripts Wednesday that they said confirm what a judge has already concluded: the Liberal government had a strategy to intentionally provoke a full-scale teachers strike two years ago.

NDP Leader Adrian Dix led off the first question period of the spring legislative session by calling on Premier Christy Clark to publicly release cabinet documents that could reveal how the government handled contract talks with teachers.

"What I think the people of B.C. would like to know is, would like to see is, the very documents Madame Justice (Susan) Griffin made her decision on," said Dix, referring to cabinet documents that were examined by the judge but never made public.

"Can the premier tell this house why ... did she act to provoke a school strike in British Columbia?"

During question period, Dix cited transcripts from Sept. 17, 2013, when John Rogers, a lawyer for the teachers' union, questioned Paul Straszak, the former negotiator or the government.

"So your objective as government was to increase the pressure on teachers to have them go out on a full-scale strike?" Dix quoted Rogers as asking.

"Yes. I'll say that's correct," Straszak replied, Dix told the legislature.

In a court ruling released last month, Griffin concluded legislation tabled in 2012 that removed class size and composition from contract negotiations was unconstitutional and she ordered the government to pay the British Columbia Teachers' Federation $2 million.

She also concluded the government developed a strategy to provoke a teachers strike, in part because it would give the government "political advantage" and allow it to pass legislation to deal with a strike and legislation related to bargaining at the same time.

In question period, NDP education critic Rob Fleming cited another portion of the transcript, in which Straszak recalled advising Clark's top deputy John Dyble about the labour situation with teachers.

"So what we're talking about here is cabinet is going to be in an awkward situation in the context of a low-scale strike, meaning it's going to want to put an end to it but the public won't necessarily see the need for the legislation because the kids are still in school," Straszak testified, Fleming told the legislature.

The New Democrats provided the media with copies of the transcript that Dix and Flemming cited in the legislature.

Attorney General Suzanne Anton told the legislature the court ruling is under appeal and the government will not comment while it is before the courts.

"We will leave it to the courts to decide matters and draw their conclusions accordingly," she said.

That contrasts with previous comments from the premier and her education minister, both of whom have made repeated public comments about the court case. As recently as Tuesday, Premier Christy Clark emphatically denied provoking teachers and said she disagreed with the ruling.

Outside the legislature, Education Minister Peter Fassbender refused to directly address the court documents or the NDP's position that they confirm a government plan to force a school strike.

"Our government has negotiated over the last 10 years 850 different agreements, so when you look at that that's not a government trying to provoke a strike," he said.

Fassbender said contract talks between the government and teachers resumed Wednesday.

Officials with the B.C. Teachers Federation and the Education Ministry declined to comment on the status of those negotiations.

Rich Overgaard of the teachers' union said both sides signed an agreement not to publicly discuss what's going on at the bargaining table until later in the process.

Negotiations are slated continue until Friday, before resuming later this month and in March.

Teresa Rezansoff, president of the B.C. School Trustees Association, said local boards of education are worried about the implications of last month's court ruling when it comes to panning their staffing needs and organizing their classrooms for September.

She said trustees across the province are urging both sides to resolve the class size and composition matter at the bargaining table, where it is set to be discussed.

"By June 30, we need to pass a balanced budget," Rezansoff said. "We have that pushing up against us."

 

The Canadian Press

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