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Teachers fire back at employers' association

President of the B.C. teachers' union Jim Iker said if the BC Public School Employers' Association wants to see big changes to proposals at the teacher bargaining table, it can start by removing the requirement for a 10-year contract.

But it's become obvious from their interactions at the bargaining table, Iker told media this afternoon, that the government's representative on the employers' team, Peter Cameron, doesn't have the mandate from government to make big changes to the employers' proposals.

"The only thing he can do is point the finger at someone else," said Iker.

"He's not been empowered by [Premier] Christy Clark or [Education Minister] Peter Fassbender to actually make the big decisions that will help bring the parties together."

In addition to removing the 10-year mandate and bringing it closer to the three year contract the teachers' have proposed, the union is also seeking a 13.25 per cent wage increase, and a return to the class size and composition formula the union had used in 2001 and earlier.

"Teachers don't want to escalate our job action," said Iker, referring to the administrative strike teachers have been under since Wednesday.

"What we want is a fair and reasonable deal negotiated at the bargaining table. But the government is the one that controls the funding: they need to empower Peter Cameron and [the employers' association] to bring some new resources, new funding to that table. Or a deal will be difficult."

Iker's comments came in response to a press briefing led by Cameron earlier today in Victoria. The union president also said government and the employers' union have refused to negotiate class size and composition, and maintain the BC Supreme Court decisions from 2011 and this past January mandate government return to the 2001 formula the teachers union is requesting.

Both government and the employers' association disagree, saying the court rulings, both made by Justice Susan Griffin, only require government to allow teachers to negotiate their working conditions. Cameron told reporters earlier today that the employers' association is letting teachers bargain class size and composition, but they refuse to return to the 2001 formula.

"It puzzles me why people keep coming back to that, as if it's got an answer for a new collective agreement," Cameron said this morning after receiving a question about the January 2014 court ruling that found the Education Improvement Act, passed in 2012, copied elements of the Public Education Flexibility and Choice Act, which the court found unconstitutional in 2011 because they prevented teachers from bargaining class size and composition.

"What the judge said was government should not have made it impossible, by a law, for the union to bargain class size and class composition because those are workload issues, and that's a fundamental part of bargaining. And that piece has been accepted [by the employers' association]."

The employers have proposed class size and composition levels remain the same, but promise to re-open negotiations with teachers should government increase those levels.

That's not enough for the union, which maintains B.C. has the highest number of students in classes on average in the country, with the lowest number of teachers per class.

"Already in B.C. there are more than 16,000 classes with four or more children with special needs. There are 3,800 classes with seven or more children with special needs," said Iker. Under the union-supported formula there would be no more than three children with special needs per class, allowing for flexibility in classes like physical education.

This would require districts to hire more teachers. Iker said the province has lost 3,500 teacher positions since 2002.

Regarding class size and composition bargaining rights, the conclusion of Justice Griffin's Jan. 28, 2014 decision states: "[677] The result of both the Bill 28 and Bill 22 Actions is that the Working Conditions clauses are returned to the collective agreement between the BCTF and BCPSEA as of July 1, 2002. The subject matter of the Working Conditions is a matter for collective bargaining between the BCTF and BCPSEA.

[679] The outcome of this case means that teachers have once again had their right to collectively bargain over their working conditions restored. They have had certain language returned to their collective agreement retroactively. This does not guarantee that the language is clad in stone, as it can and likely will need to be the subject of ongoing collective bargaining. "

The union believes government has the money to fund their proposals and public education funding overall, citing government surpluses and contingencies named in the last provincial budget as a possible funding source.

"[Finance Minister Mike de Jong] stated that the reason why they have these contingencies and surpluses, which I think amount to over a billion dollars, is to deal with some of the labour issues that are going out there," he said. "They've actually put money away.”

Now in its first stage of a three-stage strike plan, which keeps classes as normal but where since Wednesday teachers have refused to supervise students outside of class, meet with administrators, or accept or send written or electronic communication with administrators, Iker refused to speculate on how long this stage would last.

If teachers continue to be dissatisfied with government's proposals, they could move onto the next stage of rotating one-day strikes every week until the end of the school year.

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

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