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Bargaining Rights: The Problems with Essential Services Legislation

Government attacks the bargaining rights of teachers through “essential services”

During the 2001 provincial election campaign, the BC Liberals indicated that they would bring in legislation designating education as an “essential service.” The government claimed that this would continue to allow for teachers to have the right to bargain and strike, but that it would end disruption of school over labour relations issues.

The BCTF explained to the government that this move would have exactly the opposite effect, and that essential services designation would, in fact, create more disruption. This warning to government turned out to be correct.

The essentials: what teachers need to know about essential services legislation explains what essential service means in the context of collective bargaining, and looks at some of the myths and the facts that dispel those myths.

Despite the explanations and warnings about the impact, in August 2001, the BC government changed the law and designated education as an essential service. Under the legislation, the BC Labour Relations Board is given the task of designating as essential all facilities and services necessary “to prevent immediate and serious disruption of educational programs.”

ILO rules in teachers' favour

In November 2001, the BCTF filed a complaint PDF format; Acrobat Reader required asking the ILO to investigate the legislation and to report on the actions that the government should take to be in compliance with the international rules.

The November 2001 complaint was updated on

The ILO’s Committee on Freedom of Association ruled on our complaints in its:

The International Labour Organization ruled that six pieces of legislation imposed by the BC Liberals violate international agreements. As the United Nations agency responsible for upholding global labour standards, the ILO urged the Campbell government to repeal the law that made education an essential service, and to amend five other statutes to bring them into accord with its obligations under UN conventions, namely full free collective bargaining for public sector workers – including teachers.

Teachers vote to strike

Despite the legislation limiting bargaining rights, the BCTF took a strike vote in October 2001. After meetings and discussions in every school district in the province, teachers voted 91.4% in favour of strike.

The BCTF took this vote because after more than six months of bargaining, the British Columbia Public School Employers’ Association had put on the bargaining table many demands to strip provisions from the contract that protected student service and teachers’ rights. A strike vote should signal to the employer that the union members are serious about their position and are prepared to take action to achieve a collective agreement.

Government threatens to impose a contract

At several times throughout bargaining, the minister of education, the minister of finance and the premier made comments indicating that the government was considering intervening by imposing a contract on teachers. They had already imposed contracts on bus drivers, nurses, and health professionals. These threats reduced any incentive for the employers to seriously bargain with teachers to reach an agreement at the bargaining table.

The BCTF undertakes Phase 1 of strike action

The BCTF proposed two phases to a strike that would allow for withdrawing some services, but that would not be an “immediate and serious disruption of educational programs.”

Because designating education programs as essential does not apply to other teacher groups in Canada, no precedents existed to determine what strike actions could be taken consistent with this new legislation. The Labour Relations Board instituted a process where both the employer and the union made their case for what actions from the proposed Phase I could be carried out by the union. The Labour Relations Board orders defined the rules for Phase 1.

BC teachers served 72 hour strike notice on November 5, 2001, with Phase I of the job action in effect as of November 8, 2001. The BCTF Job Action Plan lists activities that teachers would not be doing during Phase I.

Employers refuse to bargain—strike expands to Phase II

Despite the Phase I strike action, the employers made no changes to their demands for stripping important contractual protection of education conditions. The BCTF then went back to the Labour Relations Board to seek approval to expand the strike to include voluntary extra-curricular activities. That was approved by the LRB and extra-curricular activities did not resume when classes were back in session on January 7, 2002.

The BCTF also submitted a request to the Labour Relations Board for Phase IIb, which would include rotating withdrawal of service.

Teachers take a new proposal to the table

Teachers had amended their initial bargaining positions already during the bargaining process, reducing the wage proposal from 34% down to 22%, and changing proposed language to provide flexibility demanded by the employers. No change from initial demands was made by the employers. Despite this, the BCTF tabled a new proposal on January 22, 2002, reducing by hundreds of millions of dollars the cost of a settlement.

The employers and the minister of finance almost immediately rejected the proposal, again refusing to put forward a framework for settlement in response to that put forward by the BCTF.

BCTF files unfair labour practice complaint

The labour law requires that both sides negotiated seriously to achieve a collective agreement. If one side refuses to do more than show up to meetings and say no, that does not constitute bargaining and the Labour Board can declare there is an unfair labour practice and order the parties to return to bargaining. The BCTF complaint said the lack of any movement off the employers’ original demand, as well as the threats of imposing by legislation, should fit the definition of unfair.

Premier calls the legislature into session

On January 23, 2002, the premier called for a session of the legislature to begin at 1 p.m. on Friday, January 25, 2002 to impose a contract on teachers by legislation. Bills 27 and 28 were passed on January 27, 2002.

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