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Stalled negotiations driving teacher strike vote: union

The province's 40,000 plus public teachers will take a strike vote on March 4 to 6 after over a year of negotiations with government that have gone nowhere.

In a press conference held at the BC Teachers' Federation Vancouver headquarters this morning, President Jim Iker said negotiations with the BC Public School Employers Association (BCPSEA) went downhill last summer when government removed BCPSEA's board and replaced it with Peter Cameron as director and negotiator.

"Up until this point, the 10-year deal was only a media sound bite," Iker said, recalling Premier Christy Clark and Education Minister Peter Fassbender's vocal support for a 10-year negotiated contract with teachers.

That summer the union held a membership vote on the prospect of a 10-year deal, and 96 per cent of teachers voted against it. But that fall the government tabled a 10-year deal anyway.

"Since the fall, Christy Clark's government, through their appointed leaders at BCPSEA, is again trying to strip teachers working conditions and freeze wages," said Iker.

"They propose nothing that teachers can agree to: not a single incentive for any deal, never mind a longer term deal. Every meeting we've had since December has seen the parties drive further and further apart as the government goes after unreasonable concessions."

According to the union, those concessions include annual salary increases under one per cent in the first four years followed by income indexing for the rest of the 10 year agreement -- which Iker says government's own negotiators were confused by -- and eliminating contract language about class size and composition, despite the recent B.C. Supreme Court ruling that the government's previous deletion of this language was unconstitutional.

"It showed total disrespect for the law, for teachers, and for our students. Sadly this government has not learned anything," said Iker.

On Jan. 27, Justice Susan Griffin ruled government must restore class size and composition to the 2002 levels. Government is currently appealing that ruling, saying it could cost over $1 billion to implement. A court date for the appeal is expected some time in May or June.

The strike vote, which Iker said is "very, very likely" to pass, will happen March 4 to 6, intentionally coinciding with the next teacher bargaining dates of March 4 to 7. Iker said he hopes the vote will put pressure on government to come to the table with a better deal. But he adds students and parents won't have to worry about a repeat of 2011-2012's teacher job action, at least not right away.

"We will consider all our job action and timing very, very carefully," he said, adding the union's goal remains a negotiated deal.

"Once a strike vote is taken, BCTF has 90 days to take some form of job action. That job action -- if needed -- will occur in stages. But any initial action will not include immediate school closures, disruptions for our students, nor will it have our teachers stop doing extracurricular activities, and it will not affect report card or communication with parents."

Justice Griffin also found government bargained in bad faith during the 2012 teacher negotiations when it engaged in tactics to force teachers to strike, including asking the BC Labour Relations Board to dock teachers pay. Government has denied this.

When asked if by possibly going on strike in 2014 would "play into [government's] hands" Iker said some could see it that way, but it's about teachers' democratic right to a collective bargaining.

"At some point in time you need to apply that pressure, and we can't be afraid to apply that pressure through a strike vote because of past government actions," he said.

Results of the strike vote are expected on the evening of March 6.

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

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