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Teachers' union doubts government's bargaining abilities

At a press conference held at the BC Teachers' Federation's Vancouver headquarters this morning, President Susan Lambert accused the government's bargaining arm of offering a "sub-zero mandate" and being incapable of bargaining with the teachers.

"I think [BC Public School Employers' Association (BCPSEA)] is desperate, I think they're flailing, they have nothing they can bargain with, so it's very difficult for them to come to a negotiation table with no ability to actually enter into any productive discussions," says Lambert.

The conference had been called to mark World Teacher Day, started by the United Nations in 1994 to honour teachers worldwide, and was meant to outline the BC Federation of Teachers' (BCTF) displeasure with government's recent funding announcement for special needs students (for more see The Hook story here).

But the question and answer period demonstrated reporters were hungry for more information on the slow pace of a bargaining process that seemed to be going nowhere.

Lambert was quick to point out that was BCPSEA's fault for not coming to the table ready to make compromises, unlike the teachers.

"Government has come to the table and demanded concessions on top of a net zero mandate, in other words a sub-zero mandate, and they have not moved off that position to date. They will have to move off that position in order for us to negotiate a mutually satisfactory collective agreement," she says.

"We understand that negotiations are a process of compromise. In fact we've compromised benefits and improvements to our salaries [in the past] for those improvements in class size and composition.

"So this year we put on the table a package that will be negotiated, it will be a process of compromise, like all negotiations are, that we can sign a collective agreement that meets everyone's needs."

But Lambert made it clear that salary negotiations are just as important as class size and composition, and that's one area where they won't be so flexible.

"Teachers in B.C. have fallen behind other colleagues across the country, and also others who have the same qualifications and responsibilities in the private sector. If we want to maintain a very strong public education system in this province, we need to attract very capable, very able, very dedicated and passionate teachers," she says.

When asked about escalation from either side, Lambert said teachers have no plans to escalate their job action in the future, and she doesn't believe the government will escalate pressure on teachers by imposing a lock out.

Earlier this week a BCPSEA discussion paper was leaked to the media, which recommended putting pressure on teachers to reach a deal by cutting their salaries or instituting a province-wide, two-week school lock out.

But BCPSEA says there has been no discussion of a lockout, and chair Melanie Joy says the teachers' union should spend more time at the bargaining table and less talking to the media.

"The conversations need to be happening at the bargaining table, teachers need to be happening at the bargaining table, teachers need to be coming to the bargaining table with a focus on their priorities so that we can get to that agreement," Joy told The Tyee, adding that BCPSEA has been successful in teacher negotiations in the past.

"There's a stress on the system, employers are feeling it, schools are feeling it, parents and students will be feeling it and will be negatively impacted, so we really need to get these conversations moving."

According to the BCTF, bargaining was cancelled on Monday due to a BCPSEA meeting with trustees, and again on Tuesday and today because of BCPSEA bargaining with the B.C. chapter of the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

BCPSEA would not confirm nor deny they had cancelled bargaining earlier this week, but it will resume tomorrow.

Katie Hyslop reports on education for the Tyee Solutions Society, and is a freelance reporter for a number of other outlets including The Tyee.

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