Court sides with B.C. teachers on class sizes in bargaining rights

With a tense round of bargaining just under way between the province and its teachers, the B.C. Supreme Court has declared “unconstitutional and invalid” a law that has restricted teachers’ bargaining rights for more than nine years.

The B.C. Liberal government imposed legislation in 2002 that took the makeup of classrooms – the total number of students as well as the number of special needs students integrated into each class – out of collective bargaining.The B.C. Teachers’ Federation challenged the law under the Canadian Charter of Rights, arguing those components have a significant impact on their working conditions and should be freely negotiated.

Madam Justice Susan Griffin, in a ruling released Wednesday, sided with the teachers and delivered a rebuke to the province for its vague claims and secretive agenda.

The release of the ruling partly overshadowed Premier Christy Clark’s by-election launch. Ms. Clark, who was education minister when the labour law was introduced, met with reporters to announce she’ll be seeking election in Vancouver-Point Grey on May 11, but questions about the education decision dominated the exchange.

When the law was passed during an emergency session of the legislature in January, 2002, Ms. Clark called it a “really balanced piece of legislation … reasonable and very, very fair.”

On Wednesday, she said the law, at the time, had broad-based support. “But clearly it wasn’t the right bill. The Supreme Court has told us that so we are going to address that, and we’re going to have to make sure we get on a different footing with the teachers’ union, just as the court has suggested.”

It was a rough start for Ms. Clark’s first day of campaigning for a seat in the legislature. Ms. Clark met reporters outside her downtown cabinet offices, rather than making the announcement in the riding that was recently vacated by former premier Gordon Campbell.

In her written decision, Judge Griffin dismissed the government’s claims that the law was needed to counter the “virtual paralysis of the school system.” In fact, the court found the changes were imposed without consultation to curtail costs and that the government’s objectives interfered with free collective bargaining.

Evidence at the trial showed the government expected to save, in 2001 dollars, $275-million each year by taking class size out of the contract. “A key reason that school administrators and the government did not like to have class size and composition limits included in collective agreements,” wrote Judge Griffin, “was the fact that these limits increased costs to school districts.”

As well, the judge described evidence brought forward by the province that class-size limits were causing hardships to students and parents as “vague … anecdotal hearsay.”

The province has one year to respond to the decision and is considering an appeal. But in the meantime, the court has thrown the government’s net zero bargaining mandate for the public sector into question.

The current contract with teachers expires in June and the province maintains there is no money for wage hikes – it hopes to meet its target to eliminate the provincial deficit by 2013, in part by keeping public-sector wages frozen.

Susan Lambert, president of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation, would not speculate on the cost of rolling back the 2002 law, but she said the province has a moral obligation to act swiftly to end the “shameful legacy” of underfunding classrooms in the wake of Wednesday’s ruling.

“It’s a tremendous victory for teachers, and for students and for parents. It’ll have a significant impact on restoring learning conditions in schools,” she said. “This is a turning point.”

She said the law left students struggling in oversized classes with inadequate supports for too long and she expects the provisions that limited class sizes will be restored.

The Globe and Mail, Wed Apr 13 2011

Byline: Justine Hunter and Ian Bailey


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