A "profoundly disappointed" Education Minister Peter Fassbender apologized to the public this morning in reaction to the teacher union's plan for a full strike beginning next Tuesday.
"I just want to say to parents and students: I'm profoundly sorry you're in the middle of all of this," he said, adding apologies are extended to individual teachers, too. "No one wants this. We have to break the cycle, we need to get to a negotiated settlement. That's our commitment."
The minister's remarks followed the BC Teachers' Federation early morning announcement that a full-blown teachers' strike would begin Tuesday, June 17, if a negotiated deal isn't reached by then.
"There are still several days left, during which both sides can hunker down, reach a settlement, avoid a full-scale strike, and end the government's lockout," said Jim Iker, president of the union.
"We're ready to move, but my message to [Premier] Christy Clark is, come to the table with new funding, an open mind, and the flexibility needed to reach a fair settlement that will support teachers and students."
The Labour Relations Board ruled last night that Grade 10 to 12 provincial exams must go ahead. Teachers must leave one school entrance free from picketing during exam days, help facilitate exams, and have Grade 12 final marks in by June 20. Teachers must also complete essential services designations for students with special needs.
The education minister echoed Iker's desire to reach a negotiated settlement before a strike, saying the BC Public School Employers' Association was prepared to bargain "24-7" between now and Monday to reach a deal. He said he expects the teachers will move on their bargaining proposals.
"I am optimistic, quite honestly, that they are already prepared to come to the table with revised proposals," he said, adding a bargaining facilitator is now "playing an enhanced role" at the table.
Premier wants a negotiated settlement
Today could be the last day of school for students in districts whose teachers are set to walkout tomorrow as part of the rotating strikes, as Monday has been designated a "study session" by the union for all teachers to meet with union. As of now, schools will be open, but teachers won't be there.
When asked if the Monday meetings played within the rules of bargaining, Fassbender responded that "is for other people to determine," suggesting government could make another complaint to the Labour Relations Board.
At a press conference announcing the results of the strike vote on Tuesday, Iker referenced the Port of Metro Vancouver truckers strike in March, where the provincial government stepped in with extra funding to reach a deal. He asked why Premier Clark isn't doing the same in this case, and has refused the union's request to meet.
Fassbender spoke for her, saying the truckers strike was completely different because the federal government was involved. He said Clark is "totally engaged" in the teacher bargaining process through discussions with the minister.
"She wants to see us get a negotiated settlement, and meeting with the (union) isn't going to change it. She's not the negotiator, neither am I, that's why we have a very professional team who's doing that," said Fassbender, referencing public administrator Michael Marchbank and government spokesperson Peter Cameron, who were both appointed to the employers' association by government last summer after government pressed the bargaining reset button, throwing out the employers' previous bargaining mandate.
A request for comment from the employers' association was denied. A spokesperson said all comment on the strike announcement would come from the Ministry of Education.
'Judge by our actions': minister
Both sides remain far apart at the bargaining table, especially on salary, class size and composition, and specialty teacher-to-student ratios. In 17 months of bargaining, both the teachers and the employers' association have publicly adjusted their salary proposals twice. But while the teachers have made changes to their class size and composition formula and specialty teacher to student ratios, the employers' association so far refuses to budge on either proposal, which have been to keep the status quo.
When asked if the employer offers were tied to fears of the "me too" clause in other public sector agreements, allowing them to return to the bargaining table if another union got a better deal, Fassbender wouldn't speak to the clause directly.
Within the government's balanced budget framework, he said, "it's important we respect the rights of teachers, of parents, of students and the taxpayers. The government's role is to respect all of those and that's where the balance has to be."
As a final question, one reporter referenced the B.C. Supreme Court decision that found government tried to provoke the teachers into a strike in 2012 to shore up public support for a legislated contract, and asked why the public should believe government now.
Sighing, Fassbender responded the government couldn't be clearer on its desire for a negotiated settlement.
"People will have to judge by our actions, and if you look at what the government has done through our employers' group, we moved on the [10-year] term on response to the feedback that we've heard from teachers, from parents," he said.
"Look at our actions: we want a negotiated settlement. That's where we're coming from, that's where we've always been, that is our goal, and we're going to work very hard to make sure we get there."
Both sides are scheduled to bargain this afternoon.