Abbott Weighs in on Bill 22

George Abbott, Minister of Education, weighs in on Bill 22

Last week, I introduced Bill 22, which sets a cooling off period and suspends the teachers’ union strike action while calling on the assistance of a mediator. It also implements the $165-million Learning Improvement Fund and other measures that will play a fundamental role in the future of education in our province.

Unfortunately, before Bill 22 was even tabled, the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation was moving to escalate their strike. The union has since ramped up the rhetoric and distorted what Bill 22 seeks to accomplish.

A clear example is their claim that Bill 22 strips seniority rights from teachers. Nothing could be further from the truth. Bill 22 does not change current seniority provisions, and it does not strip teachers of seniority rights. Seniority will continue to be an important factor in filling teaching positions.

While the teacher’s union initially called for mediation, they rejected the approach set out in Bill 22 because it makes it clear that any mediated settlement must respect the net-zero mandate. This is no surprise as virtually every other public sector union in the province has signed agreements at net-zero, and government has clearly and consistently stated that the BCTF’s demands for a $2-billion increase to wages and benefits are completely unreasonable given the current economic reality. But there is room to compromise and seek agreement through mediation on the full range of issues each party brought to the table. Bill 22 simply makes it clear that mediation must attempt to address the local-provincial split of bargaining issues – a central issue of importance to the BCTF – as well as issues of importance to employers including “effective feedback and evaluation of teachers to promote improvement, alignment of professional development with teaching needs, and scheduling and selection of teachers suited to student needs.” The mediator’s mandate is a balanced one – seeking to address issues of importance to both sides in this dispute.

The union and their labour allies have taken the desire to discuss the selection of teachers to mean that the government is aiming to eliminate seniority. This is clearly not the case. We believe that qualifications to teach a specific subject area should play a more consistent and significant role when filling vacancies in our schools.

To be clear, people with greater seniority should have greater job security and protection from layoff than those with less seniority. As well, if two teachers are equally qualified to meet a classroom assignment, the person with more seniority should get the job. This is a long-standing principle that we endorse.  But this does not mean that someone who has never taught nor had any training in mathematics should be entitled to teach mathematics simply because they have seniority.

In several school districts, there is effective language in place that balances subject qualifications with seniority. What the employer is looking for is simply a discussion with the union on how these local provisions can be more consistently applied provincewide. Bill 22 does not predetermine the outcome. Rather, it requires the mediator to engage the parties in a meaningful discussion on the topic.

Bill 22 sets out a fair and balanced mediation process to address issues important to both the BCTF and the employer in an effort to reach a mediated settlement that follows the lead of virtually every other public sector union in the province by respecting the net-zero mandate. In the days ahead, I hope the BCTF will take a reasonable approach and engage constructively in the mediation process that government has put forward to provide students and their parents with certainty.

We believe that the mediator needs to be able to address these issues – in good faith and with respect and consideration to both sides – so that skill and expertise are considered along with seniority when making staffing decisions in schools.

George Abbott

Minister of Education