PORT McNEILL—With negotiations between striking B.C. teachers and the provincial government scheduled to resume for the first time in more than a month last Friday, a group of North Island educators took the opportunity to remind the public of their plight.
Members of the Vancouver Island North Teachers’ Association (VINTA) took to the streets in Port McNeill Wednesday and Port Hardy Friday to garner support from the public in a sign-waving rallies not so different from the picket lines they erected in late June as the last two weeks of the 2013-14 school year were disrupted by the strike and a corresponding government lockout.
Negotiations between the BCTF and the B.C. School Employers’ Association (BCPSEA), the government’s negotiating agent, broke off July 2. Last Friday’s announced meetings were the first since then, and sparked renewed hope that a deal could be reached before the scheduled resumption of classes in less than a month.
“Let’s hope they actually talk and negotiate, and not just sit there,” teacher Jackie Poynter said. “The kids need to be back in school …”
“… in a well-funded system,” added Jessica Tuttle, who joined Poynter as they held signs and waved to passing motorists on Campbell Way in Port McNeill Wednesday. “I think everyone wants to be back with a fair deal.”
During last week’s rally, teachers spaced themselves along Campbell Way with a series of signs spelling out the message: “Teachers want … fair mediation and a … fair deal for … BC’s students,” visible to drivers entering Port McNeill.
Teachers are seeking a wage increase and benefits package in addition to class size and composition legislation already upheld by a provincial judge in a decision appealed by the government.
The province, for its part, has said the BCTF must bring its demands within an “affordability zone” matching deals signed recently by other public-sector unions.
The teachers now are looking for the intervention of a mediator. B.C. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Kelleher made himself available as a mediator in July, but backed off after determining the two sides were too far apart.
The BCTF claims Kelleher’s withdrawal is the result of preconditions placed on negotiations by the government, and hopes it can prompt movement by requesting the issue of class size and composition be removed from the table while it is under appeal.
“If the government wants it to happen, it’ll happen,” said Shawn Gough, recently elected VINTA president. “We were looking at moving on some of the preconditions to move mediation along, but the government didn’t move at all. On anything.”
The current strike began as a limited job action by the teachers’ union in May. When the government responded with a partial lockout — limiting teachers’ access to schools before and after instructional hours, with a corresponding cut in pay — the BCTF moved to rotating, one-day strikes across the province in June and, finally, a full strike over the final two weeks of the school year.
Provincial finance minister Peter de Jong earlier this month unveiled a plan to provide $40 a day to parents of students under 13 years of age if the start of the school year is delayed by the ongoing strike.
Teachers took that as a sign the government was not serious about negotiating with the BCTF and was instead trying to turn the dispute into a political gain.
“I’m sorry,” said Poynter. “My child’s education is worth more than $40 a day.”