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Government-appointed mediator to have broad powers under Bill 22

Mar 15 2012

The government-appointed mediator in the B.C. teachers' dispute will have sweeping powers to order people to meetings and force them to produce information, under threat of court sanctions.

Bill 22, the government legislation that imposes a cooling-off period and bans teachers from continuing to strike, gives the mediator broad authority to get both sides to the table, with backup from the courts if needed.

Education Minister George Abbott first described the subpoena powers during debate in the legislature.

The bill, which is expected to pass this THURSDAY afternoon, says the mediator may summon people to give evidence under oath or produce documents. If that doesn't work, the mediator can get a court order, and find people in contempt of court for not complying.

The powers are normally reserved for public inquiries.

"In this case, though, clearly the success of any mediation effort is going to depend on the willingness of the parties to engage in the discussion," Abbott said Wednesday.

"You can compel at least an initial discussion, but you can never compel under mediation an outcome, nor can you compel the success of the process. That will go to, I hope, the nature of the mediator, being someone who is skilled in dispute resolution as well as someone who is knowledgeable in the education system."

Abbott has said the mediator could help the two sides find savings within the current contract. But whoever is selected to the post will be bound to a net-zero mandate, meaning any increase in teacher wages would have to be funded by savings found elsewhere in the contract.

Bill 22 extends the teachers' current contract through a cooling-off period until September. It bars any future job action, after a three-day strike by teachers last week, and abolishes limits on the number of special-needs students in classrooms, while setting overall class-size maximums.

The bill says both sides must "commence to bargain collectively in good faith" within 72 hours of its passage, though Abbott said that's a standard line in return-to-work legislation and may just involve a couple of phone calls.

In fact, it appears likely that little will happen immediately after the bill is passed, given that several school districts are on spring break and Abbott is going on a 10-day ministry trip to China.

Abbott said the mediator won't be selected until he returns from China in late March.

In the meantime, the ministry will ask for suggestions from the B.C. Teachers' Federation and the B.C. Public Sector Employers' Council, which bargains on behalf of the government.

The government is looking for someone with a dispute-resolution background who is also knowledgeable in education matters, Abbott said. He said he wouldn't rule out a sitting or retired judge for the job.

rshaw@timescolonist.com

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