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Updated: Teacher bargaining paused five days before contracts expire

A press release from the BC Teachers Federation (BCTF) and a letter on the BC Public School Employers' Association (BCPSEA) website confirm the ministry of education has put teacher bargaining on hold, five days before teachers' contracts expire on June 30.

They also agree government has appointed Peter Cameron to a position dealing with bargaining, but that's where the similarities end.

The BCTF release issued this afternoon says Cameron will replace BCPSEA as government's negotiator at the bargaining table. BCPSEA's letter, from Allan Chell, chair of their board of directors, says Cameron has been appointed as government’s new spokesperson on bargaining. Chell goes on to say Cameron told BCPSEA he is "hoping to engage the parties in discussions around developing the roadmap for moving forward."

When contacted by The Tyee, a spokesperson for BCPSEA could not account for the discrepancy in the understanding of Cameron's role.

"What we know is that the government has appointed him as the lead spokesperson on provincial matters bargaining with the BC Teachers' Federation. Now what that's going to look like, we don't know," they told The Tyee.

BCTF President Susan Lambert says the union is guessing what Cameron's role will be based on a conversation they had with Education Minister Peter Fassbender on June 20.

"(Fassbender) suggested that he wanted a structure whereby government would be negotiating directly with the BC Teachers' Federation on salaries, benefits, hours of work, paid leave, and class size and composition, and all else would probably happen at a local table," said Lambert.

But she says there's nothing wrong with the current negotiating practice, which is guided by the Public Education Labour Relations Act, and that they're sidestepping the real issues of bargaining, mainly a lack of resources offered by the ministry.

*A government press release issued this morning says the ministry rescinded BCPSEA's bargaining mandate over the weekend and that further bargaining will be on hold until a bargaining "road map" is established.

"Peter Cameron will serve as the ministry's lead on provincial matters and to develop a path forward with the parties and the BCSTA. Mr. Cameron is a respected and seasoned negotiator and we are very pleased that he has agreed to take on the challenge of helping us reach this important agreement," reads a statement from Minister Fassbender in the release.

"I want to assure all partners that while we have asked for a pause in bargaining, it is not the end of bargaining. We are not walking away from the table, we are walking toward it. The work that has been done to date will not be lost. In fact, we want to build on it."

With just five days before teachers' contracts expire, BCPSEA isn't confident a deal can be reached by deadline.

“I think it’s probably likely as there are no sessions (this week), no deal will be concluded by June 30,” said the spokesperson.

But Lambert was more optimistic, saying if government commits to the resources, and eases back from their 10-year contract mandate, a deal can be reached by Sunday.

"We could negotiate a collective agreement in the remaining time. But it requires political will, it requires the spirit of compromise. We're willing to compromise, but we are not willing to lock teachers or students into the deteriorating conditions that are in schools today for long term," she told The Tyee, speaking specifically of funding for class size and composition changes and teacher salary increases.

"We're not afraid of a multi-year deal. We've negotiated a five-year deal in the past. It's a function of bargaining how long the term is. To have us all focused on the term of an agreement, it's a distraction to say the least."

Lambert says she's reluctant to go for a 10-year deal, and wouldn't comment on whether teacher job action could be expected again in the fall if a deal isn't reached by then.

* At a media scrum earlier today, Fassbender added he was willing to work with whatever timeline the teachers wanted, but that a road map had to be planned out first. He said government was elected on a platform that included a 10 year deal with teachers, however that mandate is not set in stone.

"I have not laid any absolutes on the table," he said. "I really believe that goal is something we want to sit down directly with the BC Teachers' Federation and talk about what that could look like. But I'm not putting any gauntlets in front of them. I'm saying let's roll up our sleeves together and work on the solution."

Updated at 3:22 p.m.

Katie Hyslop reports on education and youth issues for The Tyee Solutions Society. Follow her on Twitter.

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