Vancouver News

Teachers' union says strike imminent

By Tamsyn Burgmann, The Canadian Press

VANCOUVER - British Columbia's unionized teachers are preparing to erect picket lines on Tuesday, with little reason to expect a deal to avert a full-scale strike as the two parties waged a war of words.

Talks were at a standstill on the eve of job action that will shut a half million students and more than 40,000 teachers out of school weeks ahead of the scheduled summer break.

"The strike is imminent," union president Jim Iker said Monday morning in a speech watched online by thousands of teachers gathered away from schools at "study sessions" to discuss developments.

"Government had that opportunity to get a deal this weekend and they squandered it, which is so disappointing."

Chief government negotiator Peter Cameron rebuked the union for its tactics away from the table, but concurred the sides were at an impasse.

"The strike is on at this point. I mean, they say it's a 'study session' today but there's no teachers in the classroom. It's on."

The latest offer made by the union on Friday dropped wage demands to eight per cent over five years, down from their original offer of 13.5 per cent over three years. It also proposed a $5,000 signing bonus — compared to $1,200 offered by government — and asked for new money specifically to deal with classroom conditions.

Iker said the BC Public School Employers' Association wasted a weekend of bargaining and did not respond in full to that offer until late Sunday — and then did so with its own package that reduced the wage offer previously on the table.

"Comments last week and today are completely disingenuous. It was all talk," Iker said of promises of intense bargaining. "The government was unprepared, unwilling and ultimately unhelpful. They brought nothing to the table, nothing, to bring both sides closer together."

Cameron countered by accusing Iker of completely misrepresenting the weekend's negotiations and government's latest position, and then took the unusual step of laying out specific details of both of the latest proposals.

"It seemed to be a series of claims in his presentation that are actually driving the prospect of a settlement further away when we should be getting closer together," he said, describing Iker's statements as "derogatory," "misleading" and "false."

Cameron said wages are no longer the main obstacle, but rather the "truck load of benefits" that boosts the overall union demand, including wages, to an increase of 12.5 per cent. The government is now proposing seven per cent over six years and maintaining its offer for a $1,200 signing bonus if the deal is done by June 30.

"They still want more than double any other union," he said, noting the government is offering teachers exactly the same wage increases negotiated in a slew of other B.C. public-sector collective agreements.

The new signing bonus demand would cost at least $150 million, he added, while also stating the union had not itself delivered a fulsome proposal for a new contract.

Education minister Peter Fassbender said the government's last offer is "about as good as it's going to get."

"The ball is squarely in their court at this stage," he said.

The federation executive was meeting all day to decide its next move.

Teachers emerged from their meetings to attend afternoon rallies in several cities including Victoria, where more than 500 teachers gathered outside the B.C. legislature.

Grade 8 teacher Megan Parry said improving teaching conditions to ensure students have a better learning environment was her top concern.

"It's nothing to do with me getting more money," she said. "I get to work at 7 a.m. I leave at 5 p.m. I'm working 12 hours. It's nothing to do with the money. I got into teaching because I am really passionate about helping and getting kids educated. That's why I'm here."

The last teachers' contract expired in June 2013. Earlier this month, 86 per cent of federation members who voted cast ballots in favour of a full-scale strike.

B.C. has a history of strife in education negotiations. The only settlement made without labour action in the past two decades was a five-year deal in 2006.

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