VANCOUVER - British Columbia's education minister says he prefers to remain optimistic and won't speculate on what the province might do if negotiations with the union representing school-support workers fail and teachers refuse to cross picket lines in the event of a strike.
The provincial government and the Canadian Union of Public Employees are scheduled to head back to the bargaining table between next Wednesday and Friday, just as classes resume after the summer break, but the Canadian Union of Public Employees, which represents school custodians, bus drivers, secretaries and others, has already stated publicly a strike is a real possibility.
Meantime, Jim Iker, president of the British Columbia Teachers' Federation, has said his members will "stand in solidarity" with CUPE, but he declined to say whether that means teachers will refuse to cross picket lines.
Education Minister Peter Fassbender told reporters Wednesday he's optimistic a deal will be reached without any disruption to schools.
"We're at the negotiating table," he said. "I'm not going to compromise that in any way, shape or form. We have one plan. That is to come to a settlement, to avoid any disruption. That's the goal, and that's what the negotiators are going to do at the table."
When asked what he'd do if teachers decided to respect potential CUPE picket lines, Fassbender didn't answer the question directly, saying he was "not going to presume anything at this stage."
He said he even agrees with CUPE's current ad campaign, which he said is communicating the important roles its members play in schools.
The primary issue separating the government and union is wages, and the union has been arguing its members have not seen an increase in more than four years and have been without a contract for more than a year.
The union, which represents about 27,000 education assistants, clerks, trades workers and others, has been asking for an annual wage increase of two per cent.
But the provincial government is negotiating under its so-called co-operative gains mandate, which states increases are only possible if corresponding savings can be found elsewhere.
"It's going to be tough," said Patti Bacchus, chairwoman of the Vancouver Board of Education.
She said government is not providing any additional funding for the negotiations, and school boards will have to find money out of existing budgets for any deals.
Bacchus said school boards, as a result, have some financial concerns, yet a consensus is developing that CUPE is due for a reasonable increase.
"So I expect for the negotiations to be successful, there will have to be something offered, but government is refusing to fund it," she said.
The results could be a "whammy" for school districts, she added, and actually result in job losses.
Colin Pawson, chair of CUPE's BC K-12 Presidents' Council, said the union wants to have a funded settlement and thinks the government should come to the table with the necessary money.
"They know the school districts don't have the money and that it's going to be a hardship for them," he said.
While Pawson said the union won't talk about what's being discussed at the bargaining table, a strike is a possibility, but the union is going to the table to negotiate an agreement.
"School is open Sept. 3, and we want to keep it open the whole school year, and the only thing that will make those schools be closed is if the government doesn't come to the bargaining table to bargain a wage increase for our workers."
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Labour Day: A Canadian Invention
Few Canadians realize it, but Labour Day is as Canadian as maple bacon. It all began in 1872, when the Toronto Typographical Union went on strike to demand a nine-hour workday. When <i>Globe and Mail</i> chief George Brown had the protest organizers arrested, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald passed a law legalizing labour unions. Thus, a Conservative prime minister became a hero to the working class, and Canada became among the first countries to limit the workday, doing so decades before the U.S. The typographers' marches became an annual event, eventually being adopted by the U.S., becoming the modern day Labour Day.
The Winnipeg General Strike
The end of World War I brought social instability and economic volatility to Canada. On May 15, 1919, numerous umbrella union groups went out on strike in Winnipeg, grinding the city to a halt. Protesters were attacked in the media with epithets such as "Bolshevik" and "Bohunk," but resistance from the media and government only strengthened the movement. In June, the mayor ordered the Mounties to ride into the protest, prompting violent clashes and the death of two protesters. After protest leaders were arrested, organizers called off the strike. But the federal mediator ended up ruling in favour of the protesters, establishing the Winnipeg General Strike as the most important strike in Canadian history, and a precursor to the country's modern labour movement.
The Regina Riot
During the Great Depression, the only way for a single male Canadian to get government assistance was to join "relief camps" -- make-work projects set up by the federal government out of concern idle young men were a threat to the nation. The relief camps, with their poor work conditions, became breeding grounds for communists and other radicals. The "On-To-Ottawa Trek" was organized as a protest that would move from Vancouver across the country to Ottawa, to bring workers' grievances to the prime minister. The trek halted in Regina when Prime Minister R.B. Bennett promised to talk to protest organizers. When talks broke down, the RCMP refused to allow the protesters to leave Regina and head for Ottawa, and on June 26, 1935, RCMP riot officers attacked a crowd of protesters. More than 100 people were arrested and two killed -- one protester and one officer.
In May, 1938, unemployed men led by communist organizers occupied a post office and art gallery in downtown Vancouver, protesting over poor work conditions at government-run Depression-era "relief camps." In June, the RCMP moved in to clear out the occupiers, using tear gas inside the post office. The protesters inside smashed windows for air and armed themselves with whatever was available. Forty-two people, including five officers, were injured. When word spread of the evacuation, sympathizers marched through the city's East End, smashing store windows. Further protests against "police terror" would be held in the weeks to come.
Giant Mine Bombing
In 1992, workers at Royal Oak Mines' Giant Mine in the Northwest Territories went on strike. On September 18, a bomb exploded in a mineshaft deep underground, killing nine replacement workers. Mine worker Roger Warren was convicted of nine counts of second-degree murder. The Giant Mine closed in 2004.
The Toronto G20
The Canadian Labour Congress, representing numerous labour groups, participated in protests in Toronto during the G20 summit in June, 2010. When a handful of "Black Block" anarchists rioted through the city core, it brought an overwhelming police response that resulted in the largest mass arrests in Canadian history. More than 1,000 people were arrested, with most never charged with any crime. Numerous allegations of police brutality have been made, and the Toronto police are now the target of several multi-million dollar lawsuits. So far, two police officers have been charged with crimes relating to G20 policing, and charges against other police officers are also possible.
When Vancouver-based magazine Adbusters suggested the public "occupy Wall Street" to protest corporate malfeasance, New Yorkers took the suggestion seriously, and occupied Zuccotti Park in Manhattan. Canadians followed suit, sparking copycat occupations in all major Canadian cities in September, 2011. By December, most of the occupations had been cleared, all of them non-violently. Though the protests achieved no specific goals, they did change the political conversation in North America. What their long-term legacy will be remains to be seen.