VANCOUVER - Public school students in British Columbia will find themselves at the centre of the dispute between teachers and the province next week as the union launches rotating strikes.
Nearly 559,000 students will each lose a day of classes as the teachers' union escalates job action in its offensive bid to get a new contract, its president announced Tuesday.
Premier Christy Clark, who has her own contentious history with the province's teachers, expressed strong disapproval of the union's negotiation tactic by saying children are now caught in the middle.
"That is not the right way to do this," she said after the union went public with its strike decision. "It really all comes at the expense of kids and I think we all owe them a duty to do better than that."
The BC Teachers' Federation said it's members will hold walkouts in every school district across the province, with each district affected for one day between next Monday and Thursday. The job action also means extra curricular activities, such as field trips, will be cancelled.
"We did not come to this decision to implement rotating strikes very lightly," federation president Jim Iker said at a Vancouver news conference.
The strikes will commence in Vancouver and 15 other school districts on May 26, he said.
"We will close down a large group of school districts in each one of our days of action," he said. "The impact will be significant."
Schools will all be open again on Friday, but if the government doesn't budge more strike action is a possibility the following week, Iker said.
Education Minister Peter Fassbender said he was "disappointed" by the heightened action, especially in light of concessionary moves last week that he said were aimed at bringing the sides closer together. The government and BC Public School Employers' Association backed off its initial proposal for a 10-year contract, replacing it with a six-year agreement, and also offered a new $1,200 signing bonus.
"(It's) critical for the people of British Columbia to understand is that we are looking to continue to negotiate, to find a negotiated settlement," Fassbender said, "but this, I think, makes that job that much more difficult."
Phase 2 of job action was prompted by the provincial government's unfair wage demands and unwillingness to offer any contract improvements to class size, class composition or specialist teachers, Iker said.
Fassbender rejected the notion that classroom experience was not on the bargaining table.
"Totally incorrect," he said, noting the province hired 500 additional teachers and 400 learning assistants last year. "It's always been there, it's still there."
The government's chief negotiator said last week that it would chop teachers pay by five per cent if a deal wasn't reached by the end of the school year.
But Fassbender disagreed with the way that wage cut has been characterized by the union.
"There was no threats to teachers in this province ... exactly the opposite," he said.
He said the salary clawback fairly amounts to deducting pay based on teachers' reduction of work, which has occurred during the first stage of job action that began late April.
Iker called the government's decision disrespectful and said the union would take the issue to the B.C. Labour Relations Board. He said the BCTF will still meet the employer for scheduled negotiations on Thursday and Friday.
Larissa Predy, a school psychologist in Maple Ridge, B.C., says she hopes the job action will compel movement at the bargaining table.
"People are worried, they don't want to go on strike, they wish that the decision was for the government to come around and to understand the benefit of education," Predy said.
Union members voted 89 per cent in favour of striking in March. Teachers stopped supervising students outside the classroom or communicating in writing to administrators in their first stage of job action.
(The Canadian Press, CHNL)
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