03/01/2012 01:37 EST | Updated 04/30/2012 05:12 EDT

British Columbia Teachers' Strike Begins Monday, But May Be Halted By Negotiations


VANCOUVER - Public school teachers in British Columbia voted in favour of escalating job action late Wednesday night, bringing the possibility of the educators walking off the job one step closer.

The British Columbia Teachers' Federation said 87 per cent of its teachers — 27,946 of 32,209 ballots cast — voted "yes" to the escalation of current job action.

The results of the vote came after the province refused to budge on contract demands even after six months of teachers skipping their administrative tasks.

The dispute had come to a head on Tuesday when the teachers' union won the right to walk off the job and the provincial government introduced legislation on the same day to impose a cooling-off period in hopes of averting a walkout.

With the results of Wednesday night's vote, teachers now have a window next week where they could walk off the job since it could be more than a week before the legislature votes to order them back to work.

"The results of our province-wide vote are strong evidence of the unity and determination of BCTF members in rejecting this government’s provocative and damaging legislation," federation president Susan Lambert said in a release late Wednesday night.

The teachers' union is asking for a 15 per cent wage increase and improved benefits.

The provincial government has said that can't happen under its so-called "net-zero" mandate, in which public sector workers can't receive pay increases unless the added costs are offset by concessions elsewhere in a contract.

The Labour Relations Board ruled on Tuesday that teachers were allowed to take an initial three-day strike, and then one day per week afterwards, as long as parents were given two days advance notice.

Hours later, Education Minister George Abbott announced a bill that would suspend all strike and lockout activities and appointed a mediator to develop a set of non-binding recommendations by the end of the school year.

Abbott said Bill 22, the Education Improvement Act, extends the teachers' current expired contract to allow the mediator to work with all sides to reach a new deal that still falls within the government's net-zero wage mandate.

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

The teachers' union rejected the bill as a "political" and "phoney" process that will only lead to a "pre-determined" end to the ongoing dispute.

“Teachers are determined and united in their opposition to Bill 22 and to the bullying tactics of a provincial government that has deliberately underfunded public education for a decade,” Lambert said Wednesday.

The union's executive committee will be meeting Thursday to review the results of Wednesday night's vote and will discuss the next steps in their job action.

B.C. teachers have been under provincewide bargaining since 1994, when the NDP government replaced district-by-district negotiations with a single, unified bargaining system — over the objections of the teachers' union.

Since then, the only time teachers and their employer have successfully negotiated a contract was in 2006, when the government was flush with money and eager to head off public-sector strikes in the lead-up to the 2010 Olympics.

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