VANCOUVER – Queena Zeng anticipated her final year of high school would be fairly stressful, packed with SAT cram sessions and the nerve-racking wait for university acceptance letters.
Instead, Zeng, 17, is afraid crucial learning time is being wasted for her and half-a-million other British Columbia public school students who won’t be starting their school year on time.
While the rest of the country’s children went back to class on Tuesday, the province’s fall term began under the cloud of a teachers’ strike that started 14 weeks ago and has no apparent end in sight.
“Personally, my friends, we feel neglected. We’re just here on the sidewalks waiting for something to happen,” said Zeng, who should be attending Grade 12 at Steveston-London Secondary School in Richmond, B.C.
“Nobody knows the answer and it’s tough. People do want to go back to school.”
The province’s more than 40,000 teachers have been without a contract since June 2013. The union mounted escalating stages of labour action starting last April in an attempt to get movement from the employer at the bargaining table. The union launched a full-scale walkout about two weeks before the end of the last school year.
Bargaining has been limited, with a single meeting in early August between the B.C. Teachers’ Federation and B.C. Public School Employers’ Association, which acts on behalf of the government. Last hopes were pegged on a flurry of talks with a veteran mediator over the long weekend, but negotiations broke down when Vince Ready declared an impasse because the sides are too far apart.
Both parties accuse each other of refusing to budge on contract demands, with the government suggesting the gulf is $300 million while the union says it has already chopped $100 million from its proposal. No new meetings have been scheduled.
Union president Jim Iker said the teachers’ No. 1 priority is getting guaranteed funding to improve class size, class composition and increasing the number of specialist teachers. Wages and the term of the contract are within distance, in his view.
“We don’t want to be out on the line. We would rather be in our schools today,” Iker told reporters on Tuesday as teachers picketed outside Vancouver’s Britannia Secondary. “(But) for us to relieve all pressure on government, that’s not going to get us a deal.”
Education Minister Peter Fassbender said he recognizes the situation is “very uncomfortable” and that no one wants to see anyone suffer, but the government has to stand its ground or the labour strife would never cease.
He said the government is offering $375 million over the term of the contract to improve learning conditions, and asserted it is not asking the union to give up any bargaining rights.
Iker questioned how the union could trust government when the B.C. Supreme Court has ruled the province has previously bargained in bad faith.
“Trust is a two way street. And (Iker) said he can’t trust us? Well you know what, I’m feeling a bit the same way. Because, quite honestly, the misrepresentation of the government’s motives here by Mr. Iker and the BCTF are incorrect,” Fassbender said in an interview. “This is the BCTF’s strike. They’ve called it, they’ve continued it. I tried to put out an opportunity to bridge to a negotiated settlement. They refused to even ask their members if they were willing to do it.”
The union rejected Fassbender’s proposal last week asking that teachers temporarily suspend strike action so school could start on time. The minister also asked the BCTF to put aside grievances related to court decisions — now under appeal by the government — that ruled the removal of the union’s right to bargain classroom conditions in 2002 was illegal.
About 600 educators and their supporters congregated for a protest rally outside the legislature in Victoria, turning its front lawn into what they mockingly referred to as “Christy’s classroom,” referring to Premier Christy Clark.
Victoria-area teacher Ray Stewart, who brought his three young children to the protest, said the conflict has taken a toll on his health.
“I feel pretty terrible. I’m losing sleep,” said Stewart. “It just hurts inside that I can’t get to the kids. I can’t do what I want to do properly.”
In Clark’s West Kelowna riding, dozens of parents and their children gathered outside the premier’s office to vent their frustration about the strike.
Sarah Neukomm, who helped organize the rally, said both teachers and the government’s bargainers need to make concessions so children can get back in class.
Neukomm said the government needed to stop its rhetoric about the unaffordable demands from teachers.
Fassbender has repeatedly stated government will not legislate the teachers back to work and Iker said the union doesn’t want that outcome either.
The government is giving $40 per day to parents of children 12 and under for each day the strike continues to supplement child care and tutoring costs.
— With files from Dirk Meisner in Victoria and CKFR in Kelowna
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