School supplies were put to use crafting picket signs this week as parents joined striking teachers on the line outside the School District 85 office in Port Hardy.
While the bell rang on schedule at First Nations band and private schools across the North Island, public schools saw a return to the picket line for teachers after eleventh-hour mediation attempts collapsed over the weekend.
The teachers’ union and government representatives have been at an impasse over wage and funding issues since the full strike began June 17, each side blaming the other for the stalled talks.
The government’s position is that the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation has made unrealistic demands which are out of line with other public-sector agreements. Minister of Education Peter Fassbender released a statement on the weekend saying, “The (teachers’) union made no substantive effort to get anywhere near the zone on wages and benefits. Their moves were so small that their compensation demands remain nearly double what 150,000 other B.C. public-sector workers have settled for. They even insist on a special $5,000 signing bonus that no one else received.”
BCTF President Jim Iker, meanwhile, accused the government of being unwilling to negotiate. “After two days of work with (mediator) Vince Ready, it has become clear that the government is not prepared to find a fair settlement that will get B.C.’s students and teachers back in classrooms. The BCTF team tried to kick-start meaningful talks by dropping some proposals entirely and reducing others substantially. In total, our moves today reduced our package by $125 million. Unfortunately, the government did not indicate they were willing to make any meaningful moves in return.”
Unfortunately for those in the crossfire, an agreement seemed a distant prospect this week.
“We could be looking at a very protracted negotiation,” Vancouver Island North Teachers’ Association President Sean Gough admitted at Tuesday’s rally. “We’d much rather be in school right now but the government just isn’t willing to move.”
The key sticking point in the impasse seems to be the language proposed on class size and composition.
In 2002 the government removed the teachers’ union’s ability to bargain on this issue. Subsequent B.C. Supreme Court hearings have twice ruled that this was illegal, but the government has once again appealed that decision.
Gough explained the possibility exists of putting that issue to one side and coming to an agreement on the remaining differences, allowing a return to the classroom. But exactly how that key issue is put aside has driven a wedge between the sides.
Gough said that, in essence, the government’s proposal is that the union agrees that the court decisions would apply only to past agreements while the sides await the decision on the current appeal; something the union sees as signing away hard-won rights and jeopardizing future decisions.
“I think we spend too little time with the kids as it is,” teacher Gail Monckton said from the picket line at Sunset Elementary School in Port McNeill Tuesday morning. “It’s heartbreaking.”
Even if a way to postpone those negotiations can be agreed upon, Gough said, a return to the classroom was unlikely this week.
Parent Starla Burton said she was disgusted at the way teachers were being treated and so put out a call via Facebook for parents to come out and show solidarity with the educators. “Everybody’s complaining about (the strike) but no one is doing anything,” she explained, “so I thought we should get out there and show the teachers our support.”
Burton has two children that should have been in school this week, and described the government’s handling of the negotiations as “a joke,” saying that she would like to see a much bigger investment into education.
“These (children) are our doctors, our lawyers,” she said. “We should be giving the teachers what they’re asking for.”
Burton said that she would also like to see a bigger investment into teaching assistants and special needs workers to reduce the load on teachers.
Both Gough and Burton questioned the government’s plan to give $40 per day to parents of students 12 and under affected by the strike.
“I’ve spoke to a lot of people, a lot of parents on this and I haven’t spoken to anyone who’s in favour of it,” said Gough. “What I don’t think parents understand is that they won’t see any of this money until the strike is settled. They have to sign up now and then there’ll be one lump-sum when it’s over. But that money is earmarked for public education and that’s not really where it’s going.” He was quick to point out that he wasn’t criticizing parents who signed up for the subsidy, merely questioning the government’s handling of the funds.
One parent who didn’t sign up was Burton. “I’m not taking that $40 a day,” she said. “I think that money should be going to education.”
A town hall-style meeting on the negotiations was scheduled for the evening of Tuesday, September 2, after the Gazette went to press. See more online at www.northislandgazette.com and in next week’s paper.