VANCOUVER – British Columbia’s teachers’ union has voted 86 per cent in favour of a full-scale strike, although its president said a decision has not yet been made to move towards a full-scale walkout.
In releasing the results late Tuesday night, Jim Iker said his members still want a deal with the government by the end of June, or sooner if possible, and he asked families to contact their elected officials in the provincial legislature and even on school boards to demand change from the provincial government.
The union said 33,387 teachers cast ballots Monday and Tuesday, and 28,809 voted in favour of escalating job action.
The union is now obligated to give three days’ notice before teachers walk off the job, meaning a notice issued early Wednesday could result in a strike beginning Monday.
“Even if we make the decision to escalate, we will provide three days working notice,” said Iker, adding that in the meantime, rotating strikes will continue across the province.
“That means there are several days left before any moving to the next stage. That gives both sides a small and important window to reassess their proposals, to reach a settlement, avoid a possible full-scale strike and end the government’s lockout.”
Iker said the union’s leaders will now look at timelines and discuss the issue before making a decision on the next steps. The earliest teachers could walk out in a full-scale strike would be Monday or Tuesday, he said.
“We can avoid a full-scale strike and end the government’s disruptive lockout if this government comes to the table with a more open mind and a commitment to reinvest into public education.”
Iker said the government has a proposal on the bargaining table that would wipe out class-size and class-composition guarantees, which the B.C. Supreme Court has twice ruled were illegally stripped from teachers’ collective agreements.
Iker said the government also wants a contract that would see teachers receive no wage increases for two more years, which would bring to four the number of years teachers have been without a pay raise.
“We see that as unfair and unreasonable,” he said.
But Education Minister Peter Fassbender said in a statement the results of the vote are not unexpected.
“While the BCTF leadership received the mandate they sought, no one should interpret this as any kind of enthusiasm on the part of teachers to shut down schools,” he said.
“I know teachers would prefer to be in their classrooms and I know that students and parents would rather finish this school year on a positive note. It is now up to the BCTF leadership to decide if they are going to move to a full walkout.”
Fassbender said the union needs to come to the table with realistic expectations and a willingness to engage in meaningful bargaining.
“Teachers deserve a raise but their total compensation demands are about four times more than other recent settlements.” he said.
Fassbender said the employer has made a wage offer that’s in line with separate deals reached with nearly 150,000 public sector workers, including 34,000 school support workers.
He said the offer also includes a special $1,200 signing bonus, if both sides come to an agreement by month’s end.
Earlier in the day, Premier Christy Clark said it wasn’t yet impossible to reach a settlement.
“It’s well within the realm,” she said hours before the vote tally was revealed. “If there’s a will, there’s a way. And there’s certainly a will on my part and on the government’s part.”
At the same time, teachers in Vancouver were holding a rally outside the offices of the government’s bargaining agent, the BC Public School Employers’ Association.
They said public education has eroded over a decade under the Liberal government.
“This is hugely frustrating and deeply troubling for teachers that we have to do this and take this stand which impacts our students and parents,” said Gerry Kent, president of the Vancouver Elementary School Teachers’ Association.
But “short-term pain” was necessary to protect the quality of education, he said.
Some teachers were already asking how they could get financial help as they prepared to go for an extended period without pay, Kent said. In the event of a walkout, the association expects requests for assistance to rise, he said.
“Is it going to be a hardship on teachers? Absolutely.”
A rally was also held in Victoria earlier Tuesday.
The government has applied for a Labour Relations Board hearing to get permission to compel teachers to mark critical exams for senior secondary school students. No date has been set.
Teachers and the government have engaged in tit-for-tat tactics during the dispute that has increased stress for students and families as the school year wanes.
The teachers’ contract expired in June 2013. In early March, after more than 40 bargaining sessions, the union called a vote to initiate the first round of job action.
In late April, teachers halted a limited number of duties. By late May, they began rotating strikes that shut down schools in every district for one day a week.
A third week of similar action began this week as teachers cast their ballots on Monday and Tuesday, amplifying the labour unrest.
The government responded to the rotating strikes by partially locking out teachers and docking 10 per cent pay. It also plans to initiate a full lockout for all secondary school teachers on June 25 and 26, with all teachers fully locked out on June 27.
The province announced Tuesday that the lockout for summer school would be lifted. It will be the teachers’ decision whether they return to the classroom.
Teachers have lost wages while walking the picket lines, with $50 per day strike pay from the union. The union has said there won’t be any money left at the end of the week.
The government has saved $12 million each week in teacher salaries during the job action, plus nearly $5 million more by chopping wages.
The province expects to save an additional $82.5 million each week in the event of a full-blown strike — possibly closing schools two weeks before the official summer break.
During the last round of contract negotiations in 2012, teachers walked off the job for three days. They held an illegal 10-day strike in October 2005 before conceding that their efforts wouldn’t get them a deal.
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