Editorial: Provoking strike was shameful

The B.C. government threw your children under the school bus. A B.C. Supreme Court justice says the B.C. Liberals, under Premier Christy Clark, deliberately tried to provoke the province’s teachers into going on strike. It was a campaign so cynical it makes the “quick-win” ethnic-vote ploy seem like a footnote.

The judgment by Justice Susan Griffin was released Monday, and Clark said the next day that the government would likely appeal.

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Griffin wrote that the government had interfered with teachers’ bargaining rights when it took provisions out of their collective agreements with Bill 28 in 2002. Those provisions mainly related to bargaining class size and composition.

The justice knows this topic well. In 2011, she ruled Bill 28 unconstitutional and gave the government a year to come up with a new one.

The government turned around and passed a law that Griffin wrote was “virtually identical.”

The government had talked to the teachers’ federation and then argued that those talks made the revised law constitutional. The notion that chatting to someone about voiding their constitutional rights makes it OK to erase those rights sounds like playground arguments.

The proposition certainly didn’t cut any ice with Griffin, who ruled that the 2012 bill was also unconstitutional. She ordered bargaining rights restored and told the government to pay the B.C. Teachers’ Federation $2 million.

The finding that the government essentially photocopied an unconstitutional law and handed it in again is bad enough, but British Columbians should be even more outraged by Griffin’s assessment of the government’s behaviour during contract negotiations two years ago.

“Their strategy was to put such pressure on the union that it would provoke a strike by the union. The government representatives thought this would give government the opportunity to gain political support for imposing legislation on the union,” Griffin wrote.

Citing internal notes from government negotiator Paul Straszak, the judge said the government wanted to force striking teachers back to work and take care of the Bill 28 problems with one piece of legislation. They expected the teachers would strike because the government’s refusal to negotiate working conditions would be unacceptable.

Instead of striking, the teachers staged a series of low-grade job actions, such as refusing to prepare report cards. The judge said the government tried harder to foment a strike, including by cutting funding to school districts to try to force them to cancel teachers’ leaves and professional-development days.

With the government committed to sparking a strike, the negotiating table was unbalanced. Fair collective bargaining means that each side has something to lose by not reaching an agreement. In this case, the government had nothing to lose because it wanted a strike.

The scheme was purely political — to win the government political support, and to justify legislating teachers back to work.

If the judge’s assessment is correct, the government was willing to hurl all of B.C.’s students and their parents into the upheaval of a strike with all its expense for parents and disruption for students.

The ethnic-vote incident showed that Clark fostered a win-at-all-costs attitude that gave her minions licence to ignore their consciences and the rules. A similar attitude is evident in the teachers debacle.

Liberal staff members lost their jobs over the ethnic-vote scandal because they crossed the line between government and party work. The plot against students and parents (for they, as much as teachers, were the victims) wasn’t illegal, but it was morally reprehensible.

It appears Clark owes British Columbians an apology.

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