VICTORIA - The question of whether British Columbia's half-million schoolchildren start classes as scheduled next week appears to hinge the teachers' union accepting a government proposal to temporarily end an ongoing strike and delay dealing with one of the union's largest grievances.
Education Minister Peter Fassbender met with the B.C. Teachers' Federation and the government's lead negotiator Wednesday in Victoria, where he asked both sides to take a two-week break from strikes or lockouts if a veteran labour mediator agrees to get involved.
But Fassbender's proposal would require the union to set aside contract grievances related to two important court rulings. The rulings both found the government violated teachers' collective bargaining rights by removing clauses related to class size and composition.
"If Mr. (Vince) Ready saw that we were close enough, by setting aside the grievance portion of the court case, which is still on going ... then we could get it done," Fassbender said, referring to a mediator who was brought into the process earlier this month.
"It could be that if the BCTF was ready to accept that proposal overall, we could get into mediation as early as (Thursday). And if we got a settlement this weekend, then nobody would have to stand down anything."
After the meeting, Iker did not indicate what the union planned to do, though he said he wanted mediation to start as soon as possible.
"The minister has some ideas and I think those ideas should come to us through the bargaining table with Mr. Ready," he told reporters. "There wasn't any new idea proposed today that we haven't heard."
The union said in an emailed statement that Iker hopes the government will demonstrate to Ready that it's willing to make "significant moves," including more funding to improve class size and composition.
Fassbender declined to say whether the province is prepared to offer anything new. But he said the contract proposal put forward by the union, which includes $225 million a year to deal with the court grievances from the B.C. Supreme Court decision, should be put aside until the case winds through the appeals process.
The court ruled earlier this year — for the second time — that the government acted illegally when it stripped issues related to class size and class composition from teachers' contract in 2002. The province is appealing.
Iker was not immediately available for an interview.
Fassbender said Iker told him he would need to consult the union executive before responding. The minister said Iker also told him teachers would need to vote before the strike would be suspended.
Fassbender has repeatedly said the government will not use legislation to force the teachers back to work.
The officials met as the union ramps up pressure by returning to the picket lines and planning protests and rallies, two months after teachers launched a full-scale strike in the final weeks of the school year.
Wages, benefits, class size and class composition are among the major issues prompting the longest dispute in the province's history that began with several weeks of rotating walkouts.
— Written by Tamsyn Burgmann in Vancouver
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version incorrectly said the minister proposed delaying discussions about class size and composition.