PORT HARDY—Optimistic that a collective bargaining agreement was near entering last weekend, British Columbia’s teachers instead found themselves on the picket lines Tuesday in a full-scale strike that may mean the end of the current school year.
“I was hopeful we’d get some good news today,” Sunset Elementary School teacher Kevin Ogren said Monday. “ I was expecting to be back in class (Tuesday).”
Instead, all classes remained shut down on North Vancouver Island and elsewhere in the province. Provincial exams will go forward for Grade 10-12 students after the Labour Relations Board deemed them essential services, but end-of-year activities like field trips, awards days and leaving ceremonies are thrown into question.
“Year-end festivities associated with schools will in all likelihood be cancelled,” School District 85 superintendent Scott Benwell said. “This not necessarily a done deal; the sides are still bargaining. But in the absence of a deal, parents and students can expect those activities to not go forward.”
Some parent volunteer groups have teamed up to arrange alternative ceremonies for their children. A leaving ceremony for Grade 7 students at Sunset Elementary will take place June 25 at Port McNeill’s Community Hall. The same evening, Port Hardy kindergarteners will be recognized in a graduation event at the Civic Centre beginning at 6:30 p.m.
Sunset’s Grade 7’s also made their year-end field trip to Victoria this week, thanks to a cadre of parent and support worker volunteers and the efforts of principal Steve Gray.
The B.C. Teachers’ Federation last Friday submitted a proposal to the B.C. Public School Employer’s Association, the government’s negotiating agent, described as a framework for agreement. It included a reduction in the teachers’ wage demand from 14 per cent to eight per cent and extended the term of the contract to five years from four.
But the government did not respond with its counter-proposal until Sunday evening, and the teachers argue that the offer was actually a step backward from the BCPSEA offer previously put on the table.
The government has offered seven per cent over six years, with a $1,200 signing bonus. The teachers are asking for a $5,000 signing bonus and the restoration of class size and composition limits already upheld by a court order the province has appealed.
“At the end of the day, we feel we got played,” said Fred Robertson, president of Vancouver Island North Teachers’ Association. “We believed we were going into serious negotiations. But they came back late Sunday, when it was too late to talk to our membership, and their package was an insult. It didn’t address anything.
“If they had wanted a deal, the deal was there.”
The last day of regular classes on the North Island was actually last Thursday, June 12. On Friday, VINTA engaged in a one-day strike as part of a series of rotating strikes called by the BCTF beginning in late May. And Monday was given over to a series of meetings among teachers across the province to discuss the government’s latest contract offer and determine strategy going forward.
Teachers striking at various schools in Port Hardy rallied at the SD85 office in Port Hardy in a show of solidarity Tuesday afternoon, the first day of the full strike.
Behind the picket line, school district officials could only wait and be prepared for any changes in the ongoing negotiations.
“The district continues to hope the parties will find some common ground at the bargaining table, and that classes can resume before the end of the school year,” said Benwell.