Schools across B.C. will begin closing next week, as the dispute between the province and its 41,000 teachers escalates, leaving parents scrambling to make arrangements for child care and raising questions about whether the province and teachers can bridge the wide gulf between them.
Extracurricular activities such as field trips will also be cancelled as the union prepares for nearly a week of rotating strikes that will start Monday in Vancouver. All schools will reopen on Friday, but the strikes could continue beyond that date if the B.C. Teachers’ Federation feels there hasn’t been enough progress at the bargaining table.
BCTF president Jim Iker says the impact of the strike action will be “significant.” The province has been divided into four groups of school districts, and each day one of the groups will be behind picket lines. For example on Monday, Vancouver and 15 other school districts will be shut down.
“Every single region of our province will be affected every single day,” Mr. Iker said.
Meanwhile, the province says it will be slashing teachers’ pay to reflect their reduced workload during the labour dispute.
In late April, teachers halted written communication with administrators and stopped supervising students outside the classroom. The province responded last week by telling teachers that their wages would be cut by five per cent if they continued that initial job action.
Now, the province says it will likely cut wages by 10 per cent once teachers begin rotating strikes.
“The reality is if you withdraw services in a union environment, there is commensurate loss of salary,” Education Minister Peter Fassbender told reporters Tuesday afternoon.
“If they’ve reduced the amount of work they’re doing, the commensurate response from the B.C. Public School Employers’ Association to them was, ‘We will reduce your salary accordingly.’”
In documents tabled in late April, both sides were still far apart in wage talks. The teachers’ federation was asking for a 13.34-per-cent increase by 2016 according to government calculations, while B.C. negotiators offered 2.75 per cent. The government states in its latest proposal that the union is “well outside any possible settlement zone.”
Even if the union and province manage to bridge the canyon over wages, the labour escalation is only the latest move in a toxic relationship that spans decades.
In late January, the B.C. Supreme Court ruled that the government of then-premier Gordon Campbell acted unconstitutionally in 2002 when it imposed a contract on teachers that stripped them of their rights to set class limits, reaffirming a similar decision from 2011. At the time, after nearly a year of failed negotiations, the province’s teachers were refusing to supervise extracurricular programs, holding out for better wages, smaller class sizes and more specialists. The legislated end to the dispute was predicted to lead to a bitter confrontation lasting years.
Over a decade later, both sides are indeed fighting over the same ground.
In a proposal tabled during bargaining on March 4, the BCTF called for a return to 2002 staffing levels, asking for the hiring of thousands of teachers and specialists, as well as setting caps on class sizes, including a limit of three special needs students per class. The overall cap would reduce class sizes by nearly one student annually through to 2015.
The province has balked at the proposal and claimed that it could cost upward of $1-billion to implement.
But Mr. Fassbender says the union’s rotating-strikes announcement will hamper negotiations. Meanwhile, Mr. Iker alleges the government has been bargaining in bad faith.
“Our hope is that this government brings more to the table than threats,” he said.
With files from Justine Hunter and The Canadian Press