Premier Christy Clark wants B.C. teachers to suspend their strike and return to the bargaining table – though her attempt to bridge the divide was quickly rebuffed, and a comment about teachers' massage-benefit demands only drew the union's ire.
Ms. Clark, who aside from a few tweets has largely let her Education Minister do the talking on the strike, addressed reporters at a news conference Wednesday but offered little in the way of new information. A subsequent B.C. Teachers' Federation (BCTF)news conference reinforced that the two sides remain far apart.
(Read up on the issues and history of the education labour dispute with our explainer Q&A.)
Ms. Clark said teachers need to come to the table with a realistic proposal. She took particular issue with what she said were two demands: one for unlimited massages, the other for a $5,000 signing bonus for each teacher.
Jim Iker, the BCTF's president, said the Premier was "mistaken" in her remarks about the massage benefits.
"What we're looking for is a modest improvement in massage, from $500 to $700," he said. "We never ever had on the table unlimited massage, though there are unions that have that. That was never on the table. There was a proposal for $3,000 for massage for some members who are in chronic pain, members who need some extra help and massage to give them some quality of life. Government knew what that was all about and we had to take that off the table."
Of the signing bonus, Mr. Iker said the item was actually the government's idea and the bonus amount was negotiable.
But the Premier again classified the teachers' demands as outside the province's "affordability zone." She said teachers deserve a raise, but one that's in line with what other public-sector workers have received. She said the best thing teachers can do is suspend their strike so students return to the classroom as quickly as possible.
"I want to today strongly urge the union leadership to bargain, to bargain seriously, to bargain with the hope that we can get to a negotiated solution to this that will be fair to their members, that will be fair to taxpayers, and that will be fair to the other 150,000 public-sector workers who have already settled for a deal that we can afford," she told reporters.
Ms. Clark said the union and the province have been at odds for decades and there is "no magic wand" to fix the problem.
She faced a barrage of questions at her news conference. At one point, she was asked why she has been nowhere to be seen on the strike file. She said she has been working with the government team.
Ms. Clark was also asked why she took to Twitter over the weekend and sent a series of tweets that "provoked" teachers. She did not answer directly, saying she understands negotiations can be emotional but that it's important to put those emotions aside and return to the bargaining table.
The Premier would not say how long she was prepared to let the strike go on before imposing a legislated settlement. She said she would not speculate on a time frame.
Mr. Iker said the BCTF has no plans to suspend the strike but is willing to bargain at any time – if the province is willing to compromise. "If the government is willing to move in the way that teachers have, we can get this deal done," he said.
The province's 40,000 public-school teachers went on strike in mid-June after staging various levels of escalating job actions, including several weeks of rotating walkouts. The last two weeks of school were cancelled as a result of the strike, leaving parents scrambling to find alternate arrangements.
The last round of negotiations failed last week, when veteran mediator Vince Ready found that the parties were too far apart for a deal to be possible. Half-a-million students missed what was supposed to be the start of school this week.
One of the main issues at stake is a recent B.C. Supreme Court ruling that said the government acted illegally when it stripped 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.
With reports from Globe staff