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Amid tough talks, B.C. teachers’ union marshals troops

BC Teachers' Federation President Susan Lambert speaks to the crowd during a teachers rally at the Vancouver Art Gallery in Vancouver, March 7, 2012.

BEN NELMS/REUTERS

The B.C. teachers union is seeking guidance from its members as the government tries to secure an unprecedented 10-year labour contract.

The 41,000 members of the British Columbia Teachers' Federation are being asked: "Do you support our bargaining team and their efforts to achieve a negotiated settlement, and oppose any government interference into the bargaining process?"

Local union offices are running the vote, collecting ballots across the province online and in traditional voting boxes. The vote was announced Wednesday and concludes Friday.

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BCTF president Jim Iker said the union decided this week to call the vote after the government said it wanted to end current talks and launch them later with a new focus on a 10-year deal.

He said the government on Wednesday had inexplicably resumed bargaining on unresolved issues that don't include the proposed decade-long agreement.

The union thought it important, he said, to give members an opportunity to express their views on the fluid situation.

Asked what impact the vote might have, he said: "We always listen to our members and adjust to what our members say. We're a very democratic organization."

The developments came after Education Minister Peter Fassbender sought a pause in the bargaining process so both sides could develop a "road map" to negotiate the decade-long agreement Premier Christy Clark has touted as a means of bringing labour stability to the school system.

It was a key plank in the B.C. Liberal platform in the May election campaign that saw the party win a fourth consecutive majority.

"I think whatever feedback they get will guide their discussions but it will also help us in terms of maybe some of the hurdles we have to overcome," Mr. Fassbender told reporters in Victoria when asked about the unexpected vote.

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The BCTF has been opposed to a 10-year deal, citing concerns from members. Mr. Fassbender said rejection of the proposal now would be premature and won't dissuade the government. "What they need to do is be patient, allow their leadership to sit down with us in a spirit of co-operation and collaboration, and let us go back and tell them what a long-term deal looks like," he said.

Mr. Fassbender wouldn't say if anything less than a ten-year deal might be possible. "If I speculate on anything less than a 10-year goal that we set out, then I'm already starting to back off. I don't think this is the time."

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