Striking B.C. teachers step up pressure as school year looms

Teachers' union promises picketing, radio ads and protests

VANCOUVER — For the past two months, Chris Moon has been running tractors, bailers and swathers at his father’s hay farm in Creston, B.C.

He was supposed to be teaching social studies.

The 41-year-old Vancouver educator’s usual source of income dried up when he walked off the job in June along with British Columbia’s more than 40,000 unionized teachers.

After working the fields all summer for room and board, Moon was back on the picket line Tuesday, declaring he remains determined to get a negotiated contract that he and his colleagues believe is fair.

“The question, every single day, looms over my head: What’s going to happen in September?” he said while walking the perimeter of the Vancouver School Board’s main office with about a dozen other striking teachers.

In the nearly two months since the previous school year ended, teachers have largely had a break from picketing.

But with classes officially scheduled to resume next Tuesday, the teachers’ union is renewing its efforts to pressure the government, promising picketing, radio ads and protests in the coming days.

The school year appears increasingly unlikely to start on time, with no word of scheduled talks between the B.C. Teachers’ Federation and the B.C. Public School Employers’ Association, which bargains on behalf of the provincial government.

The province did not respond to questions Tuesday about why negotiations hadn’t resumed.

A teachers’ federation spokesman said union president Jim Iker would not be commenting, citing an ongoing media blackout, though he said Iker had been in touch with the province’s lead negotiator.

Despite the media blackout, each side has made limited public statements during the past week.

Iker has challenged Education Minister Peter Fassbender to begin mediation, but the ministry says that will only happen if a veteran mediator who was brought into the process believes it would be productive. Fassbender has repeatedly suggested the sites are too far apart for mediation.

The dispute has focused on wages and benefits, along with issues related to class size and class composition.

Outside the Vancouver School Board, a group of teachers said those classroom issues were the main sticking points for them.

They said the government must figure out a way to fund enough staff to give proper attention to children with learning disabilities, behavioural disorders, mild mental disabilities, students for whom English is a second language and children who are considered “gifted.”

Stephanie Koropatnick, a district-level resource teacher with 25 years experience, said she believes the public education system would face dangerous consequences if the teachers relent.

“If we go much further (with the strike), I may have to either sell my home or default on my mortgage,” she said, noting she was unable to find alternate employment over the summer.

“On the other hand, I know that if I don’t stand firm with my colleagues, disaster looms. There is no way we can back down on this.”

Myrne Ross said it’s the teachers’ anger at the government that is keeping them united.

“People are feeling that this is really our time to be standing up. It is now about public education,” said the 20-year resource teacher, while adding she’s partially in shock that the conflict has dragged out so long.

Both said they’re essentially satisfied at the government’s latest wage offer, but they want to know they haven’t “signed away” rights to bargain classroom conditions. The B.C. Supreme Court has ruled provisions related to those issues were illegally stripped from the teachers’ contract 12 years ago.

Alvaro Rojas, a music teacher, brought his five-year-old son Noah along with him to the picket line on Tuesday. Noah held a placard that read: “I want to start school!”

“I think he’s learning that if you have feelings and position … you should do something about it and not just sit at home,” said Rojas.

With uncertainty about when his young son will actually start kindergarten, Rojas said he couldn’t even put his feelings about the potential impact on the boy into words.

“It’s just a black cloud and rage,” he said.

Other teachers donning strike signs said they resorted to various means to endure the mounting financial losses, including dipping into savings and lines of credit, taking on multiple odd jobs and relying on family.

Some teachers are also dreaming up ways to make some cash and help out parents next week by holding activities like arts camps, said Jessica Jang, who has been teaching for two years.

“There’s a lot of people trying to think of alternatives,” she said. “It’s not school, at all. But that’s what’s been happening.”