BRITISH COLUMBIA
06/10/2014 05:55 EDT | Updated 08/10/2014 05:59 EDT

B.C. Teachers Strike 2014: Clark Says Negotiated Deal Still Not Impossible

EJ Ramos Samson
VANCOUVER - Teachers were holding protest rallies, schools were shuffling events, and with the union poised to announce whether a full-scale strike would be launched, British Columbia's premier was urging each side in the labour dispute to "work a little bit harder."

Results from a two-day vote were expected Tuesday night after the BC Teachers' Federation urged more than 40,000 members to support a walkout.

Despite more than a year of negotiations, the union was telling public school teachers that the government's position was firmly entrenched so maximum pressure had to be applied to get a deal at the bargaining table.

On Tuesday afternoon, Premier Christy Clark said it wasn't yet impossible to reach a settlement.

"It's well within the realm," she told reporters hours before the vote tally was to be revealed. "If there's a will, there's a way. And there's certainly a will on my part and on the government's part."

At the same time, teachers in Vancouver were holding a rally outside the offices of the government's bargaining agent, the BC Public School Employers' Association.

They said public education has eroded over a decade under the Liberal government.

"This is hugely frustrating and deeply troubling for teachers that we have to do this and take this stand which impacts our students and parents," said Gerry Kent, president of the Vancouver Elementary School Teachers' Association.

But "short-term pain" was necessary to protect the quality of education, he said.

Some teachers were already asking how they could get financial help as they prepared to go for an extended period without pay, Kent said. In the event of a walkout, the association expects requests for assistance to rise, he said.

"Is it going to be a hardship on teachers? Absolutely."

A rally was also held in Victoria earlier Tuesday.

The union is obligated to give three days' notice before teachers walk off the job, meaning a notice issued early Wednesday could result in a strike beginning Monday.

The government has applied for a Labour Relations Board hearing to get permission to compel teachers to mark critical exams for senior secondary school students. No date has been set.

Teachers and the government have engaged in tit-for-tat tactics during the dispute that has increased stress for students and families as the school year wanes.

The teachers' contract expired in June 2013. In early March, after more than 40 bargaining sessions, the union called a vote to initiate the first round of job action.

In late April, teachers halted a limited number of duties. By late May, they began rotating strikes that shut down schools in every district for one day a week.

A third week of similar action began this week as teachers cast their ballots on Monday and Tuesday, amplifying the labour unrest.

The government responded to the rotating strikes by partially locking out teachers and docking 10 per cent pay. It also plans to initiate a full lockout for all secondary school teachers on June 25 and 26, with all teachers fully locked out on June 27.

The province announced Tuesday that the lockout for summer school would be lifted. It will be the teachers' decision whether they return to the classroom.

Teachers have lost wages while walking the picket lines, with $50 strike pay from the union. The union has said there won't be any money left at the end of the week.

The government has saved $16.5 million each week in teacher and support staff salaries during the job action, plus nearly $5 million more by chopping wages.

The province expects to save an additional $82.5 million each week in the event a full-blown strike proceeds — possibly closing schools two weeks before the official summer break.

During the last round of contract negotiations in 2012, teachers walked off the job for three days. They held an illegal 10-day strike in October 2005 before conceding that their efforts wouldn't get them a deal.

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