First day of classes cancelled as teachers’ strike continues

Teachers and government blame each other as talks break down.

By Tyler Olsen and Alex Butler, with files from Jeff Nagel

Binders remained closed, pencils stayed sharp and new shoes were left unscuffed as the ongoing teachers’ strike forced the cancellation of the first day of classes at public schools across Mission.

With exploratory negotiations having broke down Saturday between the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) and the province, Mission teachers met behind closed doors Tuesday.

While the province says the BCTF’s demands are unaffordable, local teachers say they’re sacrificing their wages to demand smaller classes for students.

“We’re losing our salary for what we believe in,” math teacher Nathalie Butters said outside of Ecole Des Deux-Rives Tuesday. “I’ve lost all confidence in government because they’re not dealing in good faith.”

Butters accused the province of bullying tactics and asked the province to “put their money where their mouths are.”

While Butters and a small group picketed their school late Tuesday morning, most of their fellow teachers were taking part in a union meeting at the Lions Hall.

There had been optimism Friday evening as both sides sat down for long talks with mediator Vince Ready. But Ready abandoned the negotiations the next day, declaring that the two sides were still too far apart for mediation to be productive.

While Ready said the teachers and the province were too far apart  on both wages and benefits, BCTF president Jim Iker said the two sides were close 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.

Even more problematic are differing views on class size and composition and a legal victory by the BCTF in B.C. Supreme Court.

The union – and picketing Abbotsford teachers – cited the government’s “E80” clause as a key sticking point. The teachers say the clause would erase 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,” BCTF president Jim Iker said. “The government must back off that unreasonable request and invest money in the system now.”

Fassbender, however, has placed the blame on the teachers’ union and its leaders.

“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.”

A small group of parents and children took part in a rally outside of Abbotsford South MLA Darryl Plecas office Tuesday morning.

“I felt that it was important for parents at a local level to have a voice,” said organizer David Cusick, who has a seven-year-old daughter in the public system.

Cusick said the parents wanted to make it known that they support the teachers position “and are willing to stand outside on a rainy day in order to make that known.”

He wants to see the teachers’ class size and composition requests met and said: “we want to see them paid competitively with other provinces.”

Cusick said it’s unfortunate his daughter, Sydney, cannot start school on time, but that her friends and classmates have needs that currently aren’t being met in the classroom.

“She has friends who have been under-served because of the class composition, so I want to see that change so that their outcomes can be more positive.”

Corinne Martens, who has children in grades 4 and 9, said she is frustrated by the ongoing labour dispute, but supports teachers.

“I support quality public education and I feel that it is being compromised and it is at-risk right now.”

Martens son has special needs, and she said class size and composition are important to the quality of education and put the onus on the government to resolve the strike.

“They need to show more compromise and flexibility, and I disagree with the fact that they are not following what the BC Supreme Court has ruled.”

A single mother who is in school and working part-time, Martens said child care is a challenge. Respite care for her son costs $20 an hour – “a considerable extra cost,” she said.

Though she said she will need to use the $40-a-day the government is supplying for students under 12, she said she is unsure what to think about the offer, saying it “feels like a bribe.”

Her daughter, Jessica, is also disappointed with not being able to start Grade 9 as planned.

“It’s my first year of high school and its really exciting and now it might be delayed for a while.”

Martens said she fears the strike could continue for a month.

“I’m just hoping that the teachers are not legislated back to work and that this is resolved properly, with a fair and appropriate deal.”

While public schools remain closed, independent schools opened as planned Tuesday.