VANCOUVER - B.C.'s education minister denied accusations by the teachers' union that the government interfered with its bargaining process by appointing a single negotiator to serve as its lead on contract talks.
Speaking in Vancouver on Wednesday, Peter Fassbender said the government was simply adhering to a request made last year by the BC Teachers' Federation for the opportunity to bargain directly with the provincial government.
"We didn't intervene, we simply met with all of the parties ... and said, 'You wanted to bargain directly with the provincial government,'" Fassbender told reporters. "That was their ask to us going back to last year, and so we said we're going to provide an opportunity."
However, the BCTF said it withdrew the request after negotiating a new bargaining framework with the BC Public School Employers' Association earlier this year.
Teachers have been at the table since February, and have even signed off on some issues that don't require additional government funding, said BCTF President Jim Iker.
Iker said the union is not necessarily opposed to dealing with the government directly through a single negotiator, but teachers are disappointed the government chose to suspend what the union says was the first constructive round of bargaining in years.
"If government wants to change who we're going to negotiate directly with, that is their prerogative," Iker said in a phone interview. "But let's not interfere in any negative way about even wanting to change the structure while we've been at the table."
Two weeks ago, Fassbender revoked the mandate of the employer representative and replaced it with negotiator Peter Cameron, who has been tasked with securing a 10-year-deal with teachers.
The move prompted the BCTF to poll its members last week. A majority of those who cast their ballots indicated they support their contract-negotiating team, and oppose government interference during negotiations.
Fassbender insisted bargaining needed to be paused so that a framework on how to achieve long-term stability in classrooms can be set up.
While Fassbender insisted that the government is not "throwing away anything that's been done so far," the BCTF is still suspicious of the province's intentions.
"They told us back in January they would not change our structure for this round of bargaining," said Iker. "And here they were, when they were re-elected, talking about possibly changing the (bargaining) process or the structure."
Even though the BCTF has opposed a decade-long deal, Fassbender said he was met with similar push back and skepticism when he helped negotiate a 20-year RCMP contract last year.
"But when we actually finished and we had all the details in the agreement that showed the checks and balances were there, I think people saw that a 20-year deal is not unrealistic," he said.
"And I don't think a 10-year deal is unrealistic either as long we have all those elements negotiated in the contract."
Iker said the union has met with Peter Cameron, and repeated the union's position that while it will not accept a 10-year agreement, it will be open to a longer-term contract that meets teachers' demands such as smaller class sizes and better support to students.
The teachers' contract expired last weekend, and negotiations will resume after the summer.
The minister was in Vancouver Wednesday to reiterate the Liberal government's plan to provide a one-time $1,200 education savings grant to families with children born after 2007.
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