B.C. teachers will vote next week on whether to escalate their rotating strikes to a full-scale walkout after the Labour Relations Board ruled that the government is within its rights to slash their pay by 10 per cent in response to their job action.
"To get a fair deal and better supports for students, it's time to exert the maximum pressure possible," B.C. Teachers' Federation president Jim Iker said on Wednesday.
Teachers will cast ballots next Monday and Tuesday. If they approve increased job action, that will likely mean a full-scale strike within the next two weeks, Mr. Iker said. In the meantime, teachers will stage a third round of rotating strikes next week, with each school district being closed for one full day.
"The vote itself will apply pressure on both sides, and hopefully spur the movement needed from the employer to help us reach that deal," Mr. Iker said. "There is still time for government to act and prevent a full-scale strike. It's time for Premier Christy Clark to put the funding on the table that will bring both sides closer."
The school year is scheduled to end for students on June 26. The government has told teachers they will be locked out on June 27, usually an administrative day for them to wind up their work for the summer.
The Labour Relations Board was asked to determine whether the government was breaking the law by cutting teachers' pay and imposing a partial lockout that prevents them from coming to work more than 45 minutes before classes begin or staying more than 45 minutes after they end.
The board concluded the government was within its rights. But it also said teachers are entitled to mount the job action.
Whether 10 per cent is a fair amount is a matter the board said would be up to an arbitrator.
"I note that the employer has stated its willingness to arbitrate this matter," Richard Longpre, vice-chair of the Labour Relations Board, wrote in the ruling. "The BCTF and the employer are free to submit this matter to third-party resolution if they so decide."
Wayne Ross, a professor of education at the University of British Columbia, said he would be surprised if teachers launched a full-scale strike before the end of the school year.
"I think this move is motivated to appease the rank-and-file teachers, who after the LRB ruling are buzzing like angry bees," Mr. Ross said in an email.
He said he expects the BCTF will do everything possible to reach a deal, saying "the threat of a walkout will put pressure back on the government."
The teachers' federation said it reduced its wage demands by one percentage point during bargaining on Tuesday and is now asking for a pay hike of 9.75 per cent over four years, not including a cost-of-living allowance.
However, the government said that when the pay increases are compounded over the four years and the cost-of-living allowance is added, the total wage increase would be 14.7 per cent – compared with the 15.9 per cent previously.
"Despite these important moves by the BCTF, the government responded with nothing," the union said in an email to its members. "They did not provide a single counter or adjust any of their proposals."
Education Minister Peter Fassbender said he was "disappointed" with the union's decision to vote on escalating the job action.
"A full strike is only going to keep more students out of their classrooms, create more disruption for parents, while teachers and support workers caught in the middle will lose even more in wages."
He said the union move on wages is not enough.
"There is no bottomless pit of money and the rotating strikes are certainly not going to help teachers' and support workers' pocketbooks."
The employer's chief negotiator, Peter Cameron, called the wage reduction "disappointing."
"When you factor all the way through, it's still many, many times greater than the current level of settlements elsewhere," Mr. Cameron said, adding he is losing optimism a deal can be negotiated before the end of the school year.
The B.C. Public School Employers' Association, the government's bargaining arm, is offering a 7.3 per cent increase over six years.
Meanwhile, students across the province walked out of class on Wednesday to protest against the job action, saying it interferes with their ability to learn. More than a dozen students holding signs gathered in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery, cheering as they elicited honks from passing cars.
Mitchell Key, a Grade 9 student at Kitsilano Secondary School, said some of his schoolmates are failing their classes because they are not able to get the help they need from their teachers outside of class.
"The teachers want more pay and they want [a bigger] budget for the school," he said. "But by trying to fight for that, they're screwing us over."
With a report from The Canadian Press