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About two dozen students rallied in Vancouver June 4, 2014, against both sides of the ongoing B.C. public school labour dispute.Tamsyn Burgmann/The Canadian Press

B.C. teachers and the provincial government began talks Wednesday about whether marking critical exams should be designated an essential service, as parents and students waited for news about whether a full-scale strike would begin as early as next Tuesday.

Last week, the provincial government asked the B.C. Labour Relations Board to issue an order compelling teachers to mark all exams for senior secondary school students in the event of a complete work stoppage. The application argues that students in Grades 10 to 12 will face serious consequences – for example, not getting admitted to post-secondary schools – if their final grades are not compiled.

The aim is for the B.C. Teachers' Federation and the B.C. Public School Employers' Association to come to a voluntary agreement, said Guy Pocklington, the board's information officer. That would save both parties the time and money needed for a formal hearing.

If the two sides reach an agreement on some aspects of the issue but not others, that would at least cut down on the amount of time required for a formal hearing, he said.

The BCTF voted 86 per cent in favour of a strike mandate, the union announced on Tuesday night. But throughout Wednesday, union officials discussed their next moves behind closed door.

If teachers do walk off the job, the earliest they would do so would be Tuesday morning, BCTF president Jim Iker said. Three days' notice is required before teachers can escalate their job action to a complete work stoppage.

Teachers are now in their third week of rotating strikes, with each school district being closed for one day a week. There is also a partial lockout in place that prevents them from being at school more than 45 minutes before or after classes.

The government has said that if a deal isn't reached by the end of June, it will lift the partial lockout so students can attend summer school classes. However, if teachers stage a strike then those classes would likely be cancelled.

Dan Laitsch, an associate professor with the faculty of education at Simon Fraser University, said he's hopeful that the strike mandate will create a "renewed impetus" for the two sides to reach a deal before next week.

"Strikes put a great pressure on the union members because they're not receiving a full salary," said Mr. Laitsch. "I think this highlights the fact that teachers are very unhappy if they're willing to go without income like this and strike."

Both sides say they are still gunning for a deal, but they remain far apart on issues such as wages and class size and composition.

The BCTF is asking for a wage increase of 3 per cent in the first year, followed by 2.25 per cent each year over the following three years. That doesn't include the cost of living allowance.

The government's bargaining arm, the B.C. Public School Employers' Association, is offering a pay hike of 7.3 per cent over six years.

Also at issue are a pair of court rulings that order the government to reinstate provisions around class sizes and composition that were stripped from teachers' collective agreements in 2002. The government is appealing the latest ruling and says that reinstating class sizes and staffing to pre-2002 levels would cost $2-billion.

In order to reach a deal the government will need to budge on the class size and composition issues, while the union will need to lower its wage demands, said Mr. Laitsch.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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