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Leah Samson, an English teacher at Fraser Heights Secondary School in Surrey, B.C., teaches her students to assess their own learning. (Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail)
Leah Samson, an English teacher at Fraser Heights Secondary School in Surrey, B.C., teaches her students to assess their own learning. (Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail)

B.C. teachers plan to start work-to-rule action next week Add to ...

The union representing B.C.’s 41,000 teachers served the government with 72-hours notice Thursday that it plans to start low-level job action next week, a move that will see teachers end most activities outside the classroom.

The announcement came six weeks after teachers voted 89 per cent in favour of granting the B.C. Teachers’ Federation a strike mandate. Talks with government negotiations have moved little since then, according to both sides.

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The escalation comes during another dip in the decades-long acrimonious relationship between teachers and the government in Victoria, one punctuated by only a few periods of short-lived labour peace.

Both parents and students will be spared most of the effects of the job action that starts next Wednesday. Teachers will end supervision of students outside of classrooms and cease all written communications with school administrators. Report cards and other notes to parents will be unaffected.

“Our patience is running out,” said BCTF president Jim Iker, flanked by his two deputies. “Christy Clark and her government are trying to provoke B.C. teachers and shut down B.C. schools.”

A further escalation would lead to rotating strikes across the province; however, Mr. Iker would make no commitment on when the union would make that move. A second vote by teachers would be necessary before a provincewide walkout could be considered.

Standing in the rain outside of Ms. Clark’s office, Education Minister Peter Fassbender blamed the union for the failures at the negotiation table.

“There have been some minor items that we’ve been able to move on, but the overall direction of negotiations on BCTF’s part has been more focused on implementing their strike action. They have made no real concerted effort to find a solution.”

At the heart of the current disagreement is a court ruling in late January which ordered the government to reinstate smaller class sizes and restore staffing levels to 2002 levels. In that year, a Liberal government under Gordon Campbell stripped the BCTF of its right to set those levels.

The cost of restoring the 2002 contract could be as high as $1-billion, according to the government – spending they are unwilling to consider with a budget surplus of only $184-million.

Mr. Iker says his union will not settle for anything less. The BCTF is also seeking raises of more than 13.5 per cent over the first three years of any agreement; the government is offering a fraction of that amount.

The two sides have struggled to agree on anything. After Ms. Clark campaigned on the promise of long-term labour peace in the province, government negotiators have pushed hard for a 10-year deal. The teachers have so far balked at the suggestion, calling it “unfair and unreasonable.”

On Thursday, Mr. Fassbender clarified that the decade-long deal would have “exit ramps” after several years, allowing both parties to renegotiate conditions.

The government’s chief negotiator has criticized the union’s strike plan for putting students at risk. In a letter sent to Mr. Iker on March 28, Peter Cameron wrote that the plan “includes a refusal to ‘perform mandated supervision outside of class time.’ [We believe] that this aspect of your proposed strike activity could threaten the safety of students. As a result, we seek from you an agreement to ensure sufficient resources are available to maintain the safety of students.”

Mr. Iker says school administrators will now need to supervise their students. “They may need to sweat a little,” he said, adding that he hopes overworked administrators pressure the government to negotiate a faster conclusion.

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