The three-month teachers’ strike now looks more likely than ever to continue into the early days of the school year, after a meeting between B.C.’s Education Minister and the head of the teachers’ union ended Wednesday without progress.
It was the first time Peter Fassbender and Jim Iker, president of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation, met since the strike began in June.
(Read up on the issues and history of the education labour dispute with our explainer Q&A.)
Mr. Fassbender convened the meeting – also attended by government negotiator Peter Cameron – at his legislature office to offer a proposal for re-opening classrooms next week and suspending the strike for two weeks when mediation begins.
But after 90 minutes, Mr. Iker emerged from the meeting to tell reporters there had been no progress and repeated his call for mediation to help both sides bridge a gap that led to a full-scale strike after several weeks of rotating walkouts and other job action.
Veteran mediator Vince Ready, who has worked on thousands of labour and commercial disputes in his 30 years as a mediator, has met with the parties, but ruled out getting further involved until he believes his participation will be productive.
Mr. Ready told CTV Vancouver that he had not been briefed by either side in the dispute, but hoped to have that update by Thursday.
Classes are scheduled to resume on Sept. 2.
Mr. Fassbender, in an interview, said he still hopes the strike can be resolved ahead of next week, particularly if Mr. Ready gets involved. “I have seen labour disputes resolved with a mediator in the room, with both parties willing to give and take and get to that place where the settlement is there, in 48 hours and 72 hours,” he said.
The Minister said he proposed mediation and asked the teachers’ union and the B.C. Public School Employers’ Association, bargaining for the government, to suspend all strike or lockout activities to two weeks once Mr. Ready begins mediation.
He also asked the parties to set aside potential grievances arising from a decision by B.C. Supreme Court Justice Susan Griffin that the government had tried, in the past, to provoke a school strike for political gain. Her ruling was handed down in January.
But he said Mr. Iker responded by noting that he could not make any deals without consulting his executive and the 40,000 members of the teachers’ union.
Mr. Fassbender said he was frustrated at the outcome. “I had hoped Mr. Iker would have been in a position to say the proposal had merit,” the Minister said in an interview. “He said he wasn’t prepared to make a decision.”
Mr. Fassbender said he was not asking Mr. Iker to cancel the strike mandate, but simply to postpone it for a few weeks with the option to go back on strike if there was no deal. “I can’t tell him how to run his organization,” he said.
Asked about the atmosphere in the room, he said: “Mr. Iker is very cordial. I’ve enjoyed other discussions I have had with him. I would say I felt a sense of frustration, myself, that we couldn’t have agreed to something I felt was not unreasonable.”
He said there was always a chance of a further executive meeting like Wednesday’s if the parties had something to say.
Mr. Fassbender said the B.C. Liberal government is sticking to its commitment to not legislate an end to the strike, partly because it would not resolve issues between the parties.
The B.C. government has offered to pay parents of children under 13 a total of $40 a school day to help cover child-care costs if the strike is not resolved by the scheduled resumption of classes.