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Teachers hiding behind 'rhetoric': government negotiator

The lead negotiator for government in the B.C. teachers' collective bargaining process was surprised by the union's strike vote announcement this morning, especially because the union has yet to reveal its own salary counter-offer.

"[The union] does have an obligation to put their position forward for public discussion," Peter Cameron, the government-appointed director and lead negotiator for the BC Public School Employers Association, told reporters. He added the union has dropped some hints about where it's going as far as wage increases, and says it's "extreme."

"It’s going to be a position that's going to be hard to justify in the public. So it's one thing to criticize our opening position, and it's another thing to hide behind what I actually consider to be rhetoric and not present your own initial position into the debate."

Cameron's comments come in reaction to the union's announcement earlier today that it will conduct a strike vote with its members between March 4 to 6. President Jim Iker told media it's the union's only option, as government's bargaining position has been to "to strip teachers working conditions and freeze wages."

But Cameron said the union took some facts out of context, while others were wrong altogether. One issue is salaries, which the union said will see an increase of under one per cent for the first four years. Cameron said this is consistent with other public sector unions, with the exception that once ratified teachers would be one year into their contract already.

"What they had, instead of two years with zero (salary increase) like everyone else in the public sector had, they had this one year where they were out of sync," he said.

"And in the one year they've been offered one per cent, 0.5 of which would have to come from somewhere -- we say sick leave, which is actually a benefit for them and their sick leave, as well as a benefit to us. It's an opening position, which we’ve told them."

Cameron also took issue with the union's position that Madam Justice Griffin's Jan. 27 ruling states government must restore class size and composition to 2002 levels. Cameron cited the following section of the court ruling, which calls for a return of the 2002 contract language and for the union and its employer to "negotiate an overall resolution."

[604] The result of returning the Working Conditions clauses to the BCTF and BCPSEA collective agreement means that members of the BCTF will be able to bring labour relations grievances if these clauses were violated in the past. Highly speculative numbers as to the cost of these claims have been bandied about in the evidence in this case but no substantive evidence was called in this regard. Nevertheless, the thrust of the evidence makes it clear that it will be in the interests of the BCTF and BCPSEA to negotiate an overall resolution to these claims through bargaining.

But the next paragraph in the ruling does call for a retroactive remedy as far back as 2002:

[605] While not a perfect remedy, I conclude that the return of the Working Conditions clauses to the BCTF and BCPSEA collective agreement, which will have retroactive effect, is the most appropriate remedy in the Bill 28 Action.

Cameron says government is against returning to what it sees as a "20th century formula" and instead spoke in favour of government's Learning Improvement Fund. Starting in 2012, government announced $165 million to be spent over three years as part of the Fund into classes with the highest needs for additional teaching staff or support.

"To us, that's the more professional approach than driving funding allocation by a formula that is decades old at this point," he said.

Iker's assertion that class size and composition isn't part of the bargaining process was also challenged. Cameron said government has tabled a solution to the class size and composition issue: if government were to change the current class size and composition rules outlined in the School Act, teachers would have the right to reopen the contract negotiations in order to agree on new rules to address any workload concerns they have.

Cameron said Iker has also undermined the public system by saying students have been put through a declining public education system in the last 12 years because of the absence of class size and composition negotiations.

"Making a bargaining table argument from your communications department that undermines the public confidence in the public school system seems to be a bad bargaining tactic in the bigger picture," he said.

Both Cameron and Education Minister Peter Fassbender, who addressedmedia earlier in the day to comment on his disappointment in the teachers' strike vote, assured reporters and the public they intend to reach a negotiated settlement with teachers.

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

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