VANCOUVER - Contract talks have broken off between the British Columbia government and thousands of public school support workers, the union announced Tuesday, warning of a possible strike in the fall.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees, which represents about 27,000 education assistants, clerical staff, trades workers, bus drivers and other staff, has been without a contract for more than a year.

They are currently negotiating a new contract with the provincial government, with wages emerging as the main issue, but union spokesman Colin Pawson said the province came to meetings late last week without being ready to bargain.

"When we got back together, we didn't get the sense that they had any direction," Pawson said in an interview.

"After about a day of sitting down with them, we finally said 'Well, you're knocking our ideas, but you don't seem to have any other ideas.' And then they finally admitted, 'We have no direction to bargain.'"

The chief negotiator for the province issued a statement about the negotiations, but didn't respond to the union's assertion that talks have broken down.

Pawson said meetings had been scheduled for several days this week, but those meetings have been cancelled and no others are currently planned.

The contract is being negotiated under the provincial government's so-called co-operative gains mandate. The bargaining policy, which applies throughout the public service, dictates that wage increases are possible but only if corresponding savings can be found elsewhere, such as through increases in productivity.

Pawson said the union wants wage increases of two per cent in each of the contract's two years, and he said the union has identified several ways the government could save money to fund such increases.

"There are lots of other items, but they would fall by the wayside for now if we could just work on a wage package," said Pawson.

"What we've asked for is what every other CUPE member in the education sector has received. ... I don't believe it to be unreasonable."

Peter Cameron, who the province appointed earlier this year to lead negotiations with teachers and other workers in the school system, issued a statement in which he said he's optimistic both sides can agree on a deal to avoid a strike or lockout.

He described talks last week as "exploratory" and he said he asked the union to consider cost-saving measures similar to those accepted by other unions.

"The parties made it clear that they are willing to work towards a provincial framework agreement," Cameron said in the statement.

"I expect all the parties will work hard towards an agreement and I remain hopeful that we can avoid any significant job action.”

Cameron's statement made no mention of the union's assertion that talks have "broken off indefinitely."

In the statement, Cameron said he wasn't willing to discuss specific bargaining issues.

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