VANCOUVER – The British Columbia government said on Sunday it expects to be helping parents pay the costs of daycare because the first day of school appears to be delayed indefinitely by an ongoing teachers’ strike.
Education Minister Peter Fassbender said parents who start registering at the government’s website (http://bcparentinfo.ca/) can expect to receive $40 a day as early as late September or early October, although the website says the payments will come after the strike is over.
“The registration process went live,” the minister said. “People are already registering for that $40.”
The Ministry of Education said the website experienced several glitches on Sunday, and investigations are underway to determine the cause.
Many parents were concerned daycare bills would become a problem if school did not start on time and in July, the government proposed to give cash to parents with children aged 12 and under if that was the case.
However, Jim Iker of the BC Teachers’ Federation has been critical of the move, calling it an unhelpful bribe during a recent union conference.
On Sunday, he accused government of using the payments to drag out the dispute.
“This is a government that wants to spend more time working other schemes putting money elsewhere than putting the money into our schools,” he said.
Fassbender defended the program, saying the payments are in parents’ best interest.
“We just simply have the right as government, when there are savings that accrue from a strike, to apply those in any way that we think is in the benefit of the people of British Columbia,” said Fassbender. “We have absolutely every opportunity and right to do that.”
Fassbender’s announcement comes after teachers’ and government negotiators met for three days in an attempt to reach a deal that would end — or at least suspend — an ongoing teachers strike that appears certain to prevent school from starting on Tuesday.
The veteran mediator who organized the talks walked away from the latest bargaining session, declaring both sides were too far apart.
Despite the collapse of bargaining, Fassbender reaffirmed his promise to not legislate teachers back to work, which is making it even less clear if and when school will start.
“Legislation has led to litigation, has led to court cases. We have got to stop doing it that way,” he said. “We are not going to legislate.”
Fassbender said teachers and government negotiators are more than $300 million apart.
Both sides have said they are willing to bargain throughout the long weekend in hopes of striking a deal, but Iker and Peter Cameron, the government’s negotiator, have said school will likely not start on time.
Iker has said even if the dispute was settled, preparation time before classes begins will need to be discussed.
He also said there were no further bargaining sessions scheduled, though he emphasized teachers’ willingness to talk at any time.
Iker called on Premier Christy Clark to speak with teachers and settle the deadlock.
“We’re ready tonight, we’re ready tomorrow,” he said. “It’s time for Premier Clark to sit down with us.”
It is unclear if Iker will get his wish, as Fassbender said the premier has put him in charge of the matter, though he mentioned Clark was involved.
The length of the strike has raised questions about how teachers are managing financially.
Iker would not say if the union had any plans to ask teachers if they wanted to go back to work, and only said the situation was being monitored.
There is no more money in the teachers’ strike fund, but some locals have cash set aside in hardship funds, and the union has been accepting donations from the public and from other unions, he said.
Iker would not say how much money was in the hardship funds.
Veteran mediator Vince Ready was behind the three days of talks between both sides before bargaining collapsed and is lauded as a mediator capable of resolving the toughest labour disputes.
Despite Ready’s declaration of an impasse, teachers and government negotiators have both said they will be keeping in touch with him, and said Ready will contact them again once he believes a deal can be reached.
Before the latest round of talks with Ready, Iker and Cameron met with Fassbender, who asked both sides to drop the most contentious issues and start mediation.
These issues are teachers’ grievances, which are related to a ongoing battle in court between the union and government.
The B.C. Supreme Court ruled earlier this year the province had violated the union’s rights by stripping teachers of their ability to bargain for class size and support in 2002, but the government has launched an appeal of that decision.
The ruling prompted teachers to ask the government to set aside $225 million every five years to deal with grievances stemming from the court case, but Fassbender’s proposal would have put negotiations regarding those problems on hold.
Iker has said he is unwilling to back away from dealing with those issues, but after talks collapsed on Saturday, he said teachers were willing to reduce the grievance fund to $100 million.
During the summer, bargaining for the key issues — pay, class size and support staff levels — has been moving at a glacial pace.
The province’s 40,000 teachers went on strike two weeks before summer vacation, booting all half a million of B.C.’s public school students out of class.