B.C. teachers will vote on a strike mandate next week, the latest volley between the union and the provincial government that could mean yet more turmoil for parents and students only two years after the last strike deepened the toxic relationship between both sides.
Although Premier Christy Clark campaigned last year on a promise to negotiate a 10-year contract to bring about long-term labour peace, the teachers' union president says negotiations have gone nowhere. On Tuesday, Jim Iker said flatly that teachers aren't interested in anything beyond a short-term deal with a government that a judge ruled recently was actively working to provoke a full-blown strike during the last job action.
The court ruling in late January ordered the government to reinstate smaller class sizes and restore staffing levels to those last seen in 2002. After a year of negotiations, Mr. Iker called the government's position "unreasonable, unfair and provocative," saying the judge's ruling has not been taken seriously by the government.
The government is currently appealing the ruling by the B.C. Supreme Court, saying implementing it would cost the province $1-billion to rehire thousands of new teachers and specialists.
The job action proposed Tuesday wouldn't involve shutting schools or cutting extra-curricular activities at first. However, tactics could escalate if negotiations continued to sputter.
"We can't be afraid," he said. "At some point in time, we need to apply pressure."
Mr. Iker said the government's first proposal after the court's Jan. 27 ruling was to table a proposition that would strike previous language on class sizes and composition, an effort by the government to remove what the union considered a "historic win" in court.
The union leader said harassment policies, sick leave and preparation time were also targeted by negotiators.
"They seem bent on concessions and wage freezes," said Mr. Iker. "Every meeting we've had since December has seen the parties driven further and further apart."
Peter Cameron, chief negotiator for the B.C. Public School Employers' Association, criticized the lack of "civil behaviour" in the union's call for a strike mandate. He said he'd learned only hours earlier that the teachers had decided to take a strike vote while placing much of the blame for the breakdown in talks squarely on him.
"No other bargaining relationship in this province has the toxicity of this one," said Mr. Cameron.
In Victoria, Education Minister Peter Fassbender said he was "very disappointed" with the call for a strike vote and said the union's move was "provocative." Talks are due to resume on the first day of the strike vote.
The B.C. Teachers' Federation has indicated that it views the pre-2002 contract as the starting point in negotiations, but Mr. Cameron made it clear he has no such interest, calling the recent court decision "very unhelpful."
Mr. Fassbender would not comment on the specifics of the government's offer. "Those details are supposed to stay at the table," he said.
While Mr. Cameron said that parents had "reason for concern," the chairperson of the Vancouver School Board called for calm despite the heated rhetoric from both parties.
"It's not terribly surprising at this stage of bargaining," said Patti Bacchus. Looking back over decades of labour conflict that has spanned Liberal and New Democratic governments, she called Tuesday's announcement "a part of the normal process" of negotiation in B.C.
Results of the strike vote, which will take place from March 4 to 6, should be known by the evening of March 6. If the vote passes, something Mr. Iker says is "very, very likely," the union has 90 days to begin job action.
With a report from Justine Hunter in Victoria