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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