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Teachers prepare for full-scale strike vote

Teachers and support workers, including Cranbrook and Fernie Teachers Association president Shelley Balfour, third from left, picket outside the School District 5 band office on Thursday, June 5. - Sally MacDonald Photo
Teachers and support workers, including Cranbrook and Fernie Teachers Association president Shelley Balfour, third from left, picket outside the School District 5 band office on Thursday, June 5.
— image credit: Sally MacDonald Photo

Teachers took to the picket lines in Cranbrook on Thursday, June 5, in the second one-day strike in School District 5.

Rotating one-day strikes by B.C. Teachers Federation members are in their second week as negotiations between teachers and the provincial government fail to produce an agreement.

“We’d all rather be at work,” said Shelley Balfour, president of the Cranbrook and Fernie Teachers Association, from the picket line outside the school board office in Cranbrook’s industrial area. “We absolutely want to be back in the schools doing what we do best, which is working with kids.”

Balfour said teachers have seen much support from the community in the past few weeks, with visits from fellow unionized postal workers and firemen, and students’ families who drop off snacks and have even brought a barbecue to the picket line.

“It’s been really good. It’s good for morale,” said Balfour. “But all we need is the positive honks because that means that somebody’s paying attention.”

The strike day comes the morning after a Labour Relations Board (LRB) decision, finding that the B.C. government acted legally when it cut teachers’ pay by 10 per cent and ordered a partial lockout in the wake of the rotating strikes.

“It was very disappointing, but actually not surprising,” said Balfour. “I’m not sure how they can say that we can be locked out, lose 10 per cent, if we are essential services. That’s very troubling and I hope other unions are watching.”

LRB vice-chair Richard Longpre dismissed the B.C. Teachers’ Federation appeal of the partial lockout of teachers in a decision released Wednesday afternoon.

At the bargaining table, the BCTF has reduced its pay increase proposal by one per cent over four years and offered other concessions in a move to end the stalemate.

In an email to union members Tuesday night, the BCTF executive said the offer “adjusted the Federation’s package in seven areas, including salary, benefits, preparation time and [substitute teacher] compensation.”

The new BCTF wage proposal is a total increase of 9.75 per cent over four years, plus cost-of-living adjustments in each year depending on inflation. BCTF president Jim Iker has estimated that with inflation, the total increase would be 12.75 per cent over four years.

The B.C. Public School Employers’ Association (BCPSEA), representing the province’s 60 school districts, has proposed a 7.5 per cent increase over six years, and recently added a $1,200 signing bonus for an agreement by the end of the school year.

The two sides remain bitterly divided over class size and special needs support staff, the subject of repeated court actions since those provisions were removed from the teacher contract in 2002.

Balfour said the LRB decision had forced a mood of solidarity on the picket line Thursday.

“Actually, it has brought us closer together. This seals the feeling,” she said. “The LRB decision has come at a time where, okay, alright then, here we go.”

Teachers in School District 5 have a scheduled Professional Development Day on Friday, June 6, but under the lockout they are not able to do specific work.

“They have absolutely said no, you cannot organize the classes for next year, which is a huge part of what the last Pro-D Day is – the teachers get together and say, okay, let’s organize it,” said Balfour, adding that, since class composition is no longer part of their contract, it’s vital that teachers can decide where students with extra needs are placed.

Now, BCTF members will hold a vote on June 9 and 10 to authorize a full-scale strike. If approved, it would mean a continuous strike in all school districts until the labour dispute is resolved. Rotating strikes are to continue next week while the strike vote is held and counted.

“We put seven issues on the table with concessions in this week’s bargaining and the government came with nothing. That was one of the reasons we said, you know what, we need to step this up a bit, because we are willing to make concessions and they are not bringing anything to the table,” said Balfour.

But B.C. Minister of Education Peter Fassbender said in a statement Thursday that the BCPSEA is prepared to continue negotiations.

“BCPSEA has a fair wage offer on the table, one that’s in line with recent agreements covering nearly 116,000 public sector workers,” he said.

Fassbender expressed disappointment that teachers will vote on a full-scale strike.

“A full strike is only going to keep more students out of their classrooms, create more disruption for parents, while teachers and support workers caught in the middle will lose even more in wages.

“We want this resolved before the start of the next school year and BCPSEA is prepared to bargain 24/7, right through the summer,” he said.

With files from Tom Fletcher, Black Press

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