VANCOUVER - The head of the B.C. teachers' union says an agreement on how contract talks will be structured with the government's bargaining agent may cut through the toxic relationship that has hobbled previous negotiations.

Susan Lambert said Saturday that about 200 elected teachers from across the province voted unanimously to ratify the agreement, which was also accepted by the board of directors for the B.C. Public School Employers Association.

Contract talks will begin Feb. 4.

"To have this positive agreement prior to the start of bargaining is very heartening," Lambert said.

The teachers' current two-year contract expires in June and was reached after an entire school year of job action that had teachers refusing to fill out report cards and stage a three-day walkout.

The agreement voted on Saturday calls for a timeline to facilitate negotiations.

A facilitator will also be involved from the beginning of the process, Lambert said.

Both sides negotiated the proposed agreement in December, and the employer's spokeswoman, Debra Stewart, said the board of directors voted on it Saturday during their annual general meeting, which happened to be when teachers also met for their vote.

Stewart said she could not comment further on the agreement that outlines the negotiating process.

It stipulates that issues such as posting vacant teaching jobs, filling vacancies and transferring and laying off teachers will be discussed by local school districts, not at the provincial bargaining table.

Lambert said discussing such issues at the provincial bargaining table for more than 20 years hasn't worked for districts that vary so much in size and that grievances have piled up.

Last week, the government announced a proposed 10-year deal for teachers, saying it would index their wages to match increases for other public-sector employees and provide a $100-million education investment fund.

But Lambert called the timing of that announcement, just before both sides voted on the pre-talks agreement on Saturday, a "distraction."

"What is perplexing about this is that there are four government representatives on the board of the (employer) so they know what we're doing with the employer and yet there is this proposal that seems to me to be intentionally disruptive."

Premier Christy Clark said last week the aim of the proposed 10-year deal is to prevent labour issues from spilling into classrooms so students and parents can have the stability that's been lacking for decades while teachers have staged illegal walkouts.

Lambert said Saturday that the current contract talks, which could continue into the provincial election in May, would go smoothly if the government shows some "political will."

She said wages and benefits are among the top issues teachers will be bringing to the bargaining table.

Clark said last week that nurses, college faculty and other public-sector employees received an average wage hike of two per cent a year but teachers' salaries rose by 1.8 per cent annually during the same period.

She said the proposed deal will mean fair wage increases for teachers.

But that wasn't good enough for Lambert, who said B.C. teachers would continue to lag behind their counterparts in other provinces.

The teachers' two-year contract from last June included improved benefits and seniority provisions but no wage increases. The union demanded a 15-per-cent pay raise over three years.


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