First shots over the bow in B.C. teacher talks

With the carrot being stability in schools come September, the BC Teachers' Federation is holding out the stick of teachers' job action in a bid to speed up provincial contract negotiations.

B.C.'s public school teachers last struck in 2005.

With the carrot being stability in schools come September, the BC Teachers’ Federation is holding out the stick of teachers’ job action in a bid to speed up provincial contract negotiations.

Unless progress is made in contract negotiations in the next two weeks, the teachers’ union will hold a strike vote between June 24 and 28.

Critical of the BC Public Schools Employers Association (BCPSEA) for “stalling,” the BCTF is seeking improvements in wages, benefits and working conditions as well as the negotiation of more issues at the local bargaining table.

Jim Iker, a spokesperson for the provincial bargaining team, said it’s not unreasonable to expect a signed contract by the end of June and the threat of job action is necessary to get more substantive proposals on the bargaining table.

“We think the [provincial and local bargaining] tables need increased pressure,” Iker said. “We would like to find a solution by the 30th of June.”

But the BCPSEA disagrees that job action is necessary to spur talks because concrete proposals were to be put on the table Tuesday and another 15 meetings are planned.

“It’s disappointing to have talk of strike and job action when bargaining, per se, hasn’t really taken hold, and you have to question is this more of a positioning exercise and a political exercise than a bargaining one,” said Hugh Finlayson, CEO of the employers’ association.

Finlayson said it’s possible a contract resolution could be reached by the end of June but only if both sides “put their attention to bargaining.”

The teachers are seeking improvements to wages and benefits, as well as class size and composition, a reduction in case loads, more class preparation time and improved learning specialist ratios. Another issue important to teachers is local bargaining, which Iker said would be the best solution to local issues.

But much of what the teachers are asking for is out of the hands of the BCPSEA. The province has up to a year to address deficiencies in class size and composition legislation, which the BC Supreme Court ruled was unconstitutional, and another year remains on the government’s “net zero mandate” wage freeze.

Finlayson said other unions managed to achieve collective agreements under the mandate while the class size and composition process has a separate timeline and a separate process.

As for expanding local bargaining, Finlayson said it would be inefficient and the two sides should agree to disagree and move on. “If the parties can’t come up with another model, you stay with the one you’ve got,” he said.

Meanwhile, the provincial teachers’ union fears a worsening of class size and composition if the issue isn’t addressed at the bargaining table, and Iker said teachers are falling behind other jurisdictions when it comes to salaries and benefits.

If contract talks can’t be rejuvenated, teachers will vote on whether to withdraw from administrative duties starting Sept. 6, when the 2011/’12 school year begins.

And that’s just the first phase. More job action could follow, although another vote would be required. Still, teachers plan to coach and assist with clubs as volunteers and parent teachers meetings won’t be affected.

dstrandberg@tricitynews.com