WATCH: The BC Court of Appeal says the government did not violate teachers rights in a landmark ruling. We have reaction and coverage on today’s decision.
VANCOUVER – The BC Court of Appeal has ruled in favour of the government in a long-running legal dispute between them and the B.C. Teachers’ Federation (BCTF).
In a 4-1 decision, B.C.’s highest court overturned Madam Justice Susan Griffin’s two rulings that the government failed to consult with the BCTF in good faith and denied teachers their freedom of association.
The ruling means legislation enacted in 2012 by the provincial government, which held that class sizes and class composition could not be collectively bargained, is legal.
“In our opinion, the legislation was constitutional,” wrote Chief Justice Robert James Bauman and Justice David Harris in their ruling, which was concurred by Justice Mary Newbury and Justice Mary Saunders.
“Between the consultations and the collective bargaining leading up to the legislation, teachers were afforded a meaningful process in which to advance their collective aspirations. Their freedom of association was respected.”
The court also overturned the decision of Justice Griffin to award two million in charter damages to the BCTF.
In her 2014 ruling, Justice Griffin found that the provincial government, in stripping away the BCTF’s right to bargain for class size or class composition, failed to bargain in good faith.
But this too was rejected by the Court of Appeal.
“In our opinion, the judge should not have assessed the substantive merit or objective reasonableness of the parties’ negotiating positions. Courts are poorly equipped to make such assessments,” they wrote.
“What matters in this case is the quality of the consultation process itself and whether it gave teachers a meaningful opportunity to make collective representations (through the BCTF) about their shared workplace goals. We find that it did.
“In effect, the judge imposed a more onerous standard of good faith for negotiations that labour relations tribunals impose for traditional collective bargaining.”
Justice Griffin’s ruling also said restricting bargaining on class size and composition was akin to restricting bargaining on “working conditions”, which was of breach of Charter rights.
However, the Court of Appeal rejected that as well, writing that they were a matter of government policy.
“The Affected Topics involve not only working conditions, but matters of education policy,” they wrote.
“In listening to employees, government must evaluate and respond to their representations with an appreciation of the consequences of its policy choices on their working conditions, but also an awareness of its responsibility to act in the broader public interest.”
At the end of their ruling, they also noted the significant financial impact restoring class size and composition numbers to pre-2002 levels would have.
“A retroactive declaration could expose the Province to liability in the order of $500 million. In our opinion, that sum is such that a retroactive declaration would unduly interfere with the Legislature’s constitutional role in allocating public resources.”
Response from the government and BCTF
B.C. Premier Christy Clark says today is a “unique opportunity.” She says it is time to take that opportunity to work together and aspire to make a better future for all of the province’s children.
“This is work that we must do,” says Clark, speaking to the teachers. “Let us take up that call and work together. Take this opportunity that’s been presented to us and make sure we work together to create that future.”
Education Minister Peter Fassbender says this is an opportunity to move ahead in a collaborative way. “While we’re pleased with the ruling we have today, we recognize our responsibility to teachers, to parents, to students, to taxpayers to move this forward in a responsible way.”
WATCH: Premier Christy Clark and Education Minister Peter Fassbender respond to the judgement
BCTF President Jim Iker said the decision was “very disappointing,” and said they would seek leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada.
“The decision is not unanimous, and the earlier decision showed there are fundamental issues around the law, and those issues need to be dealt with,” he said.
“Our members expect us to take this further. We’re talking about our working and our students learning conditions. It’s about more support for our students. It’s about free collective bargaining in a democracy.”
WATCH: Iker explains the reasons to seek leave for appeal to Supreme Court
While the BCTF can appeal the case to the Supreme Court of Canada at any time in the next 60 days, it’s up to the court whether to hear the case. Of the 80 appeal applications from B.C. in 2014, just eight were accepted by the country’s highest court.
Iker said the $2 million in damages given by the government to the BCTF would be returned. But he also called on the government to bring back Bill 11, which puts more regulations on professional development days, and increase funding for education.
“If the government is serious about stability and moving forward, repeal Bill 11. We all want what is best for our students,” he said.
“It’s time for this government to listen. The government has money in the budget. It’s time for this government to take out their blinders and fund B.C. schools.”
WATCH: BCTF President Jim Iker’s response to the judgement
The court first ruled the government had violated teachers’ rights in a 2011 decision that restored the contract provisions that had been deleted nine years earlier.
The B.C. government passed legislation in 2012 that once again deleted the contract clauses and the teachers’ union responded with another legal challenge, which led to a second decision by Justice Griffin in the union’s favour in January 2014.
The province appealed and a hearing was held last October. In its written arguments, the province said it had bargained in good faith and that it has the right to set education policy.
The court case emerged as one of the main sticking points in last year’s strike, which closed schools earlier in June and delayed the start of classes in September until the B.C. Teachers’ Federation signed a six-year deal.
It included a clause that could reopen negotiations for class size and composition, but the high court decision made that irrelevant.
– With files from The Canadian Press