National News

B.C. teachers to serve strike notice

BCTF president Jim Iker visits Matthew McNair Secondary in Richmond, B.C., on the first day of teachers
BCTF president Jim Iker visits Matthew McNair Secondary in Richmond, B.C., on the first day of teachers' rotating strikes around the province. (Taken on Monday, May 27, 2014.)
— image credit: Richmond Review files

By James Keller, The Canadian Press

VANCOUVER - British Columbia's teachers intend to launch a full-scale strike beginning next Tuesday, potentially keeping students across the province out of the classroom for the remainder of the school year.

The B.C. Teachers' Federation told its more than 40,000 members in an email Wednesday evening that the union planned to serve 72-hour strike notice.

A day earlier, the union announced teachers had voted overwhelmingly in favour of a full-scale walkout, after several weeks of one-day strikes that rotated between the province's school districts.

"We believe that at this time, the best way to increase the pressure at the bargaining table is with increased job action," the union email said.

"Given growing public support, our high strike vote, our determination and resolve, it is time to act."

The email said bargaining is expected to continue "non-stop" throughout the weekend and it's possible an agreement could be reached before next Tuesday.

However, the email also advised teachers to retrieve any personal items they might require during the summer before they leave at the end of the week.

Union president Jim Iker was not available to comment. He was expected to hold a news conference on Thursday morning detailing the strike plans.

The union has said it would not be able to offer teachers strike pay during a full-scale walkout.

The teachers have been staging a series of escalating measures during the current round of negotiations, first withdrawing some services and then moving to the rotating strikes, which began last month.

The provincial government responded to the rotating strikes by partially locking out teachers and docking 10 per cent pay. It also announced it would lock out for all secondary school teachers on June 25 and 26, with all teachers fully locked out on June 27.

The dispute has focused on wages and issues such as class size and composition, and the two sides still appear far apart on all of those issues.

The B.C. Public School Employers' Association, which negotiates on behalf of the province, has applied to the Labour Relations Board for an essential services order in the event of a full-scale strike. Specifically, the association wants an order to require teachers to administer and mark exams, prepare report cards and submit students' final grades.

A case management meeting was set for Wednesday evening in front of the Labour Relations Board. The meeting was not open to the public and a full hearing has not been scheduled.

Members who cast ballots voted 86 per cent in favour of striking — a vote the union said was designed to increase the pressure on the provincial government.

"I feel the same amount of pressure — as I think our government does — to get a negotiated settlement as we felt a week ago, a month ago and even a year ago," Education Minister Peter Fassbender said in an interview Wednesday, before the union announced its plans to file strike notice.

"We want to get a negotiated settlement. We would like to see the strike action and disruption stop so the students can finish the school year with no disruption."

Fassbender said the government has made significant concessions, such as abandoning its push for a 10-year contract, but he said the union has not been as flexible.

"They keep saying we need to come to the table with more money, in short: 'Give us everything we want and then we'll be happy,'" said Fassbender.

"That's not realistic."

The union has said it it's asking for a 9.75 per cent wage increase over four years, but the government claims the figure is closer to 19 per cent when cost-of-living increases and other benefits are taken into account.

The employers' association has offered 7.3 per cent over six years, along with a $1,200 signing bonus if a deal is reached before the end of the school year.

The province says it's saved $12 million each week in teacher salaries during the job action, plus nearly $5 million more by chopping wages and it could save an additional $82.5 million each week in the event of a full-blown strike.

The education minister declined to speculate whether the savings from the strike could be used to fund improvements to the teachers' contract.

"I would rather see us stay at the table and for the (union) to cancel its strike action so there would be no savings but there would be stability for the rest of the school year," said Fassbender.

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