B.C. teachers union announces strike vote for next week

Public school teachers will take a strike vote next week as tensions mount between the government and the B.C. Teachers’ Federation over ongoing contract negotiations.

Union president Jim Iker on Tuesday accused the government of demanding major concessions, offering a paltry wage increase and ignoring a recent court ruling that restored provisions stripped from teachers’ contracts in 2002.

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“For months now, behind closed doors, this government has been unreasonable, unfair and provocative,” Iker said. “They are doing it all over again.”

Iker said the government’s opening wage offer amounts to less than one per cent in the first two years of a proposed deal.

The union has been without a contract since last June.

Iker said teachers will take a strike vote March 4-6, with the results revealed on the third day.

“Such a vote does not mean imminent school closures,” he said. “We will consider all our job action and timing very, very carefully. We want a negotiated deal at the table.”

Peter Cameron, the province’s chief negotiator, fired back at Iker for announcing a strike vote before the union had even submitted its opening salary demands.

“It’s one thing to criticize our opening position,” he said. “It’s another thing to hide behind what I actually consider to be rhetoric and not present your own initial position into the public debate.”

He also chastised Iker for breaking a protocol to keep negotiations private and for characterizing the school system “as if it’s been in some kind of disaster state” for the past decade.

Teachers won a major victory last month when B.C. Supreme Court Justice Susan Griffin found, for the second time, that the government had passed unconstitutional laws that infringed teachers’ rights to negotiate working conditions.

Griffin restored contract provisions that limited the size of classes, capped the number of special needs students per class, and established formulas for the number of counsellors, librarians and other specialist teachers.

The judge also concluded that the government failed to negotiate in good faith in 2011-12 because it was preoccupied with a strategy to escalate a teachers strike and provoke a full-scale walkout.

The B.C. government is appealing that decision.

Iker said the government is now trying to accomplish at the bargaining table what it failed to do in court.

“They are trying to take back what teachers just won,” he said. “It’s as if Justice Griffin’s ruling never happened.”

He also said the government is offering teachers no increase in the first year of a deal, 0.5 per cent on ratification and zero per cent in 2014-15. Iker said that amounts to a wage freeze while other public sector employees are getting far more.

Cameron said that’s an opening offer and that teachers would actually get one per cent in the opening year with half of that coming from their sick leave. “Then they’ve been offered the pattern that everyone else was offered,” he said

Cameron said restoring old class size and composition formulas is a poor way to allocate resources. The government prefers a system in which teachers and principals would be able to invest money where it’s needed most, he said.

“Why would you not go with a lot of weight, and decisive weight, on the teachers’ opinions — the ones that are actually working with the kids?” he said. “To us, that’s a more professional approach than deriving allocation of resources by a formula that is decades old at this point.”

Once the BCTF takes a strike vote, it would have 90 days to activate it by taking job action.

The union stressed, however, that any job action would occur in stages and that the initial phase would not including shutting schools or stopping teachers from preparing report cards or taking part in extracurricular activities.

Bargaining is slated to resume March 4.

lkines@timescolonist.com

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