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Teachers strike at 'impasse' after talks fail

Mediator Vince Ready arrives to meet with B.C. Teachers
Mediator Vince Ready arrives to meet with B.C. Teachers' Federation president Jim Iker and B.C. Public School Employers' Association negotiator Peter Cameron in Richmond, B.C., on Thursday August 28, 2014. Ready has walked away from talks between British Columbia teachers and their employer, smothering hopes of parents that the school year would start on time. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
— image credit: Photo for: School in B.C. will not begin on time: negotiator

Pickets were brandished instead of pencils at public schools Tuesday after an attempt at mediated talks to resolve the teachers strike collapsed over the weekend, ending hopes classes could start on schedule.

School district administrators warned parents of children requiring alternate child care to plan for a lengthy shutdown of schools and to not assume the labour dispute will be resolved in a matter of days.

Veteran mediator Vince Ready walked away from the exploratory negotiations Saturday, saying the two sides were at "an impasse" and simply too far apart – particularly on wages and benefits – for mediation to be productive.

B.C. Teachers Federation president Jim Iker said the two sides are just one per cent apart on wages.

The government offer is seven per cent over six years, while the union wants eight per cent over five.

But Education Minister Peter Fassbender said the BCTF demand is still nearly twice what other public sector unions have settled for once benefit demands are included.

The province has also taken a $1,200 signing bonus off the table, while the union still wants $5,000, which makes up a big chunk of what the government says is a $300-million gulf between the positions,

The province has offered a $75-million Learning Improvement Fund to help address special needs but the union wants much more for special needs and to settle grievances.

Another challenge to a negotiated settlement remains the government's pending appeal of a B.C. Supreme Court ruling that it violated the union's bargaining rights in 2002 when it stripped provisions on class size and support.

Iker claimed the BCTF has reduced its demands by $125 million, including a cut in the size of its proposed fund to settle grievances, while the government offered no meaningful moves in return and "squandered" the chance at a deal.

He said the province wants new contract language that will "nullify" the union's legal victories on class size and composition and circumvent any future appeal court ruling in teachers' favour.

"B.C. teachers will not bargain away everything that the B.C. Supreme Court has already awarded us and we will not jeopardize any future court decision," Iker said. "The government must back off that unreasonable request and invest money in the system now."

Fassbender again insisted the province won't legislate the teachers back to work, saying it would keep the government and union "on the same dysfunctional treadmill" they've been on for 30 years.

“Negotiating a settlement requires union leaders to stand in front of their members and explain what has been achieved at the bargaining table," he said.

"I worry the BCTF leadership is actually counting on government to legislate an end to this strike so they can avoid having a difficult conversation with their members about what is realistic and achievable."

He had previously urged the union to agree to open schools on time this week as part of a two-week truce while mediation could continue.

That possibility evaporated when Ready said he saw no route to an agreement and walked away.

"The BCTF leadership has stubbornly refused every effort to reach a fair deal and they have even refused to give teachers a chance to vote on suspending the pickets while an agreement is mediated," Fassbender said.

Parents have begun signing up for a government offer of $40 per child under age 13 for each day schools are closed.

The lumpsum payments are to come after the strike ends and consume all the $12 million a day in strike savings the government would have amassed going forward.

The B.C. Federation of Labour on Tuesday announced "Solidarity" rallies in Surrey today, Kelowna Wednesday, Prince George Thursday and Vancouver on Friday.

President Jim Sinclair said the federation will also meet Thursday to discuss more potential ways to assist the teachers.

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