B.C. teachers asked to hold province-wide vote on whether to suspend strike

Education Minister Peter Fassbender has asked the B.C. Teachers’ Federation to hold a provincewide vote on whether to suspend their strike so school can start on Tuesday.

As mediator Vince Ready was set to meet with BCTF president Jim Iker and B.C. Public School Employers’ Association chief negotiator Peter Cameron in Richmond on Thursday afternoon, Fassbender made the request.

On Wednesday, the minister proposed a truce in which both sides would enter mediation as soon as possible and “stand down” from their strike or lockout for two weeks once mediation begins. He also asked the teachers to give up a significant part of their demands that stem from a B.C. Supreme Court decision.

“Mr. Iker told me that he could not commit to suspending his pickets during mediation because it would require him to first canvass all of his members,” Fassbender said. “Today, I am asking Mr. Iker and the BCTF leadership to canvass teachers in advance of Sept. 2 on the idea of suspending their pickets if Vince Ready is engaged in mediation.”

In response, Iker urged the minister to focus on what the government is willing to offer to make mediation work.

“That’s where teachers are focused, that’s where the deal will be made, and that’s how schools will get open,” Iker said. “It’s time for the government to end the delay tactics and get this deal done.

“Right now we have five days to get a deal with Vince Ready as mediator. That’s our priority and it should be Minister Fassbender’s top priority. He should get busy (and) attain Cabinet approval for extra funding for class size, class composition, and more specialist teachers. That’s where his energy should be now so we can get a mediated settlement by September 2.”

New Democrat education spokesman Rob Fleming said in a statement that both sides should voluntarily suspend job action if mediation is progressing.

“The only way to reach a fair settlement and ensure kids are in classrooms on Sept. 2 is to get both sides back to the table as quickly as possible. The willingness of both sides to start mediation is a positive sign,” Fleming said.

“However, the B.C. Liberals must not squander this momentum as they have so many times before in this dispute, by putting up roadblocks, arbitrary deadlines and impossible preconditions.

Fassbender asked the teachers to put aside a request for a $225-million fund that deals retroactively with grievances planned after winning a B.C. Supreme Court ruling on class size and composition bargaining rights earlier this year. He said this request should be put aside until a final court decision is reached, which could be years in the future if the case is taken to the Supreme Court of Canada. The $225-million fund was proposed to pay for increased medical benefits, teacher preparation time and professional development pay over the term of a five-year contract. In return, the teachers would drop the grievances.

“The demand on potential grievances is nearly a quarter of a billion dollars a year. This matter is before the courts and will be addressed through the appeals process,” Fassbender said. “I’m not asking the BCTF to do anything prejudicial to their court case, but setting this issue aside as the appeals process takes place gives mediation a chance to succeed.”

The B.C. Supreme Court has ruled provisions related to those issues were illegally stripped from the teachers’ contract 12 years ago and that decision is under appeal.

Fassbender called the grievance element a “very significant” impediment to bargaining “from a fiscal point of view.”

Apart from the grievance fund, the two sides are close on wages and the term of the agreement, but remain millions of dollars apart on benefits and class size and composition, with the government offering to continue its existing Learning Improvement Fund, which amounts to $75 million annually, compared to the BCTF’s proposal for a $225 million annual fund on class size and composition that would be primarily used to hire additional teachers.

Both the grievance fund and the class size and composition fund have links to the court case, but the grievance fund is money teachers see as owing from the past, while the class size and composition fund is for classrooms in the future.

He said if a deal wasn’t reached after two weeks, the teachers would still have the right to strike at that time. There is no specific deadline for either side to respond to his proposal, Fassbender said.

Tracy Sherlock is a Vancouver Sun reporter.

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