The B.C. government and the union representing educational support staff will head back to the bargaining table later this week to try to avert a potential strike – but if they can't, the B.C. Teachers' Federation says it will honour any picket lines CUPE B.C. sets up.
CUPE, which represents more than 27,000 K-12 workers, such as education assistants and clerical staff, has said bargaining delays could disrupt classes. The workers' collective agreements expired more than a year ago and the union is pushing for a wage increase. The province and the union will head back to the table Wednesday to kick off three days of negotiations.
Jim Iker, president of the B.C. Teachers' Federation, said Sunday he doesn't want to see a work stoppage. But if CUPE decides to strike, Mr. Iker said the BCTF will stand in solidarity.
"If CUPE makes the decision that they have to put up picket lines at some point down the road, we will honour them," he said, before adding, "but there will be discussions with us before that happens."
When asked if BCTF honouring the picket lines would mean schools would be closed, Mr. Iker said: "We don't know what the school districts will do. It's up to the school districts to decide whether they close schools or not."
Mr. Iker said CUPE honoured BCTF's picket lines when the latter went on strike in 2005.
He said the BCTF wants government to come to the table in good faith and with the necessary funding to ensure a fair deal for CUPE. He said he's hopeful a negotiated settlement will be reached.
CUPE has said the workers have not received a raise since 2009 and earn an average wage of $24,000 per year. The union last week announced a television and radio campaign to build support for the workers, who also include custodians, bus drivers, and those in the trades.
Education Minister Peter Fassbender said in a conference call last week he was "optimistic" a deal would be reached.
When asked about Mr. Iker's comments Sunday, Mr. Fassbender's spokesman would only say the minister remains optimistic the province and CUPE will sign an agreement.
In an op-ed released Sunday, Mr. Fassbender wrote: "I know we all want to find lasting labour peace because it allows everyone to keep their focus on what matters most: helping every student learn and succeed."
He said long-term labour peace "is a means to a far more important end: the ongoing transformation of our system to better support learning."
Mr. Fassbender's statement also noted the government is still trying to work out a 10-year deal with teachers.
Mr. Iker said the BCTF and the province aren't expected to further discuss the matter until at least October.