B.C. Education minister urges union to consult members

Peter Fassbender wants union to suspend teachers' strike as classes are set to begin

VANCOUVER _ British Columbia’s education minister is urging the union representing more than 40,000 teachers to ask its members whether they want to suspend their strike and allow classes to start as scheduled next week.

Teachers have been on a full-scale strike since mid-June, though negotiations with the BC Teachers’ Federation have largely been stalled over the summer break, making a delayed start to the school year increasingly likely.

Education Minister Peter Fassbender issued a statement Thursday asking the union to consult teachers in the coming days about the possibility of putting the strike on hold if the two sides agree to enter into mediation.

A day earlier, Fassbender asked the federation and the BC Public School Employers’ Association, which bargains on behalf of the government, to suspend any strikes or lockouts for two weeks while agreeing to mediation. Fassbender said that would require teachers to agree to delay dealing with potentially expensive contract grievances linked to a recent court case.

Fassbender’s statement on Thursday pointed to union president Jim Iker’s position that any change to the strike would likely require a vote from teachers.

“Today, I am asking Mr. Iker and the BCTF leadership to canvass teachers in advance of Sept. 2 on the idea of suspending their pickets if (labour mediator) Vince Ready is engaged in mediation,” Fassbender said in the statement.

“There are only a few days ahead for Mr. Iker to seek a mandate from teachers on this idea. I think parents, students and communities would like to know whether the BCTF is willing to let schools open and allow teachers to work while mediator Vince Ready helps the parties to negotiate an agreement.”

Earlier this month, Ready, a veteran mediator who has helped bring an end to several high-profile labour disputes in the province, agreed to monitor the situation and begin mediation if he felt the two sides were close enough.

Ready was set to meet with Iker and the employer association’s lead negotiator, Peter Cameron, in the Vancouver area on Thursday afternoon to explore that possibility.

Fassbender said he was “encouraged” by the meeting, and described his own meeting with Iker and Cameron a day earlier as productive and respectful.

Iker said he planned to discuss Fassbender’s proposal with the union executive, but he has given no indication about whether teachers would return to class next week.

The strike, and its potential to derail the start of the school year, is the culmination of a bitter dispute that has focused on wages and working conditions, such as class size and class composition.

The issues of class size and class composition were also highlighted in a long-running court battle, which resulted in a B.C. Supreme Court ruling earlier this year in favour of the union.

The court ruled that the provincial government violated the union’s collective bargaining rights when it stripped provisions related to class size and composition from the teachers’ contract in 2002. The government is appealing the decision.

During negotiations, the union has proposed a fund worth $225 million a year to deal with contract grievances related to the court case. The province wants the potential impact of such grievances to be put on hold until the case makes its way through the appeal process.

Fassbender’s proposal this week would see those grievances taken off the table, instead leaving it to the courts to sort them out.

Negotiations would instead focus on wages, class size and class composition, he said.

The education minister has repeatedly said the government will not use legislation to order teachers back to work.

The union has resumed picketing this week and announced plans to air radio ads targeting the provincial government. The teachers’ federation has promised rallies outside the offices of the premier and several cabinet ministers next week if there’s no deal by then.