The first day of classes has been cancelled for B.C. students and a $300-million gulf remains between teachers' demands and the government's latest offer, but Education Minister Peter Fassbender says he's not going to legislate the province's teachers back to work.
During a media conference held Sunday, a day after veteran mediator Vince Ready said he was withdrawing from talks until the two sides are closer together, Mr. Fassbender accused the British Columbia Teachers' Federation of trying to force the government to table back-to-work legislation.
(Read up on the issues and history of the education labour dispute with our explainer Q&A.)
"I believe the BCTF executive and their negotiating team feels that if they can hold back, not negotiate a settlement, not take my proposals to have schools start and give us more time to negotiate some difficult issues, that we will legislate a settlement as has happened in the past," Mr. Fassbender said. The minister had urged the teachers' union to withdraw picket lines and allow classes to start on time while negotiations continued, but the teachers did not concede to his request.
"We are not going to legislate. It puts us back into the same position we have been in for far too long," Mr. Fassbender said, referring to a history of legislated settlements that have soured relations between the two sides.
BCTF president Jim Iker denied Mr. Fassbender's allegation that teachers are trying to force the government's hand into tabling a back-to-work bill.
"Our members do not want to be legislated back," said Mr. Iker. "We've been legislated too often ... We don't need any more legislated contracts that define the term, define that we get zeros (in wage increases), define what we can do and what we can't do."
The teachers' union called a news conference Sunday to ask for a meeting with B.C. Premier Christy Clark.
"If the education minister and BCPSEA do not have the authority or the willingness to do what it takes to reach a fair settlement then Premier Clark needs to become directly involved," Mr. Iker said. "She can no longer sit on the sidelines."
But Mr. Fassbender said he was the one authorized to speak on the premier's behalf.
The province's 40,000 public school teachers walked off the job in mid-June, cancelling the last two weeks of school, after staging several weeks of rotating strikes and other job action.
One of the major sticking points between teachers and their employers is a B.C. Supreme Court ruling that says the government behaved unconstitutionally by stripping provisions around class size and composition from teachers' collective agreements in 2002, removing their ability to bargain on those issues. The government has appealed the ruling and suggested the issue be put aside until the case can be heard. But the teachers' union has asked for a workload fund – pegged back in June at $225-million – to reduce class sizes and hire more specialist teachers until the case makes its way through the courts.
Mr. Fassbender said the government has now put some provisions to deal with class size and composition on the table. The teachers' union, meanwhile, said it trimmed its demands by $125-million over the weekend. But there's still a large gap – to the tune of more than $300-million – between the two sides, Mr. Fassbender said.
B.C. parents had been hopeful that Mr. Ready, the province's most prominent mediator, could help the two sides hammer out a deal in time for classes to begin on Tuesday. Both sides were prepared for a marathon bargaining session over the weekend. But Saturday's announcement that Mr. Ready was taking a step back from the negotiations quashed parents' hopes.
"The uncertainty is horrendous," said Nancy Spagnut, an accountant and mother of four in Burnaby.
On Tuesday, she would have had a son going into Grade 2, and another just starting kindergarten. Now, barring a last minute settlement, they will all be in daycare.
Ms. Spagnut paid in advance for full-day spots at after-school programs – just in case. "I honestly didn't think the strike was going to continue," she said.
Now she has the school supplies purchased and the bags packed and ready should the strike end on short notice. At this point, benefits and wages and the issues in dispute are not her focus, she said. "I just want my kids in school and my life to be simple."
Meanwhile, parents attempting to sign up to receive a $40 per day child-care subsidy for each child 12 and under from the B.C. government was met with error messages Sunday. The education ministry said it is aware of the server outages and is working to resolve them.
Patti Bacchus, the chair of the Vancouver School Board, suggested that binding arbitration may be the only way to solve the impasse.
"I think there had been some optimism with the mediator involved that we might see some movement, but at this point it looks very bleak for classes on Tuesday or even probably for the rest of that week," Ms. Bacchus said.
Neither the teachers nor the government are likely to be enthused about the idea of binding arbitration, said Ms. Bacchus. But, she added, "it may be what's needed at this point to get a resolution if they can't bargain their way to one, even with a mediator standing by."
With a report from Erin Anderssen