POLITICS
03/01/2012 12:52 EST | Updated 05/01/2012 05:12 EDT

B.C. teachers to strike for 3 days next week as bitter dispute continues

VANCOUVER - British Columbia's teachers tried to amp up bargaining pressure by announcing a three-day strike starting Monday, yet it appears unlikely the move will force either side to jump-start negotiations.

Teachers' union president Susan Lambert said Thursday teachers were giving the province four days to make a new contract offer, but Education Minister George Abbott appeared willing to let things take their course and said he would not fast-track back-to-work legislation. The bill isn't due to pass for at least another week.

Lambert gave notice of the planned walkout Thursday morning after the union revealed its 41,000 members had voted 87 per cent in favour of striking.

Schools were slated to remain open during three days, though she said teachers will be away from their classrooms through Wednesday of next week.

"We take this step very, very reluctantly," Lambert told reporters, after noting the B.C. Teachers' Federation heeded the rules set out for a legal strike by the Labour Relations Board.

"If I got a call from the minister of education asking me to sit down with my bargaining team to negotiate a fair and reasonable deal for teachers, I'd be there in a heartbeat."

Abbott's response, later Thursday, was that his door is open.

"I'd be always happy to clear my schedule to sit down with them," he said in Victoria. "All (Lambert) needs to do is call me."

The strike notice came on the same day the provincial government began debating back-to-work legislation aimed at stunting a long-running strike as well as the ongoing limited job action that began in September.

Teachers have been granted permission to strike one day per week after the initial walkout is over. For the past six months they've been refusing administrative tasks, such as filling out report cards and meeting with administrators.

Abbott said he's disappointed at the walkout announcement, but respects the teachers' decision as the government moves forward with Bill 22, the Education Improvement Act.

He said there's no plans to rush the bill, which would be passed at the earliest by late next week and at the latest by the end of the following week.

A one to two-week spring break commences for many students on March 12.

Abbott said he hopes "fulsome debate" will take some of the heat out of the dispute.

"What I'm hearing and seeing in recent days is a high level of emotion, very considerable vitriol," he said.

"I think it's in the long-term interests of the education system that we have an opportunity, I hope, to see some of those emotions dampen at least a little bit in the days ahead."

He said the government wasn't attempting to reap any cost-savings from the days teachers are off work.

Grade 12 student Tomas Rapaport said he fears students voices are getting lost in the fray.

"It's too bad that we're going to be taking days off our education," said the Vancouver Technical high school student. "Do we feel somewhat upset by the strike? Yes. Do we feel it's somewhat necessary? Yes."

Rapaport and several peers are organizing their own walkout from school for Friday afternoon, hoping to draw attention to their needs.

"We want to make sure that the voice of students is being heard," he said.

They want to ensure that when contracts are being drawn, classroom size and composition is being considered, along with adequate funding for special needs students and schools on the whole.

"For us to say our education system is 'horrible' would be a huge exaggeration, but to say it's been deteriorating isn't too far fetched."

The Labour Relations Board decided the parameters of the job action on Tuesday, as teachers are deemed an essential service by law.

Lambert said she knows parents may find themselves scrambling to make childcare arrangements.

"I understand that this will totally inconvenience them. I know that some parents might have to stay away from work and that will be a hardship," she said. "I ask those parents to recognize that the public education system in B.C. has been suffering hardships for a decade."

Lambert said sometimes it is necessary to "stand up to the bully."

Teachers will not erect picket lines or block access to schools on strike days, in accordance with the Labour Relations Board ruling, Lambert said.

Abbott discouraged parents from sending children to school, but noted principals, vice-principals and non-union support staff will head to work as usual.

"Children are not obliged to attend school when the teachers are not there, but the doors will be open," he said.

"They will be safe within that school, but not receiving the normal instruction."

Teachers are seeking improved benefits and a 15-per-cent wage increase, while B.C.'s Liberal government is holding firm to a demand for a net-zero policy for all public sector employees.

Lambert said there is wiggle room on all the teachers' demands, but a fact finder concluded last week that both sides remain so far apart as to have no hope for a negotiated settlement.

Along with imposing a six-month "cooling off period," the legislation extends the teachers' current expired contract and would appoint a mediator to develop a set of non-binding recommendations by the end of the school year.

Abbott has said that if no solution is found by the time school resumes in the fall, the government will impose a contract.

Opposition New Democrat Leader Adrian Dix has previously said his party will vote against the bill and advocate for a return to "real mediation."

At the same time the strike looms in B.C., Ontario's public school teachers were told to stomach their own impending clawbacks. The education minister said the province can no longer afford to pay out banked sick days at retirement and must freeze wages for two years.

When handed the details on Wednesday, elementary school teachers walked out of contract talks.