Teachers gear up strike vote

Union leader says employers' offer is an insult but remains confident of deal by June 30

Victoria Times-Colonist, May 19, 2006, Page A3
Byline: Janet Steffenhagen

The B.C. Teachers' Federation served notice Thursday that it is making plans for a strike vote June 7 and 8, which could lead to a strike disrupting the opening of schools in September if a new contract isn't signed by then.

The federation's executive told the B.C. Public School Employers' Association it will seek a mandate from union local presidents at a meeting in early June to hold a strike vote by teachers the following week.

If a strike were to occur this fall, it would be the second major shutdown of the province's public schools in less than a year.

Union president Jinny Sims said the call for a strike vote is in response to the employers' offer this week of an eight per cent pay increase over four years -- far less than the union's bid for a 24 per cent boost in a three-year deal. The employers' association called it a serious opening offer, but Sims described it as an insult.

"It's less than the cost of living [increase]," she said. "This is a very unfair, unrealistic offer ... [and] they had the audacity to call it a serious offer."

The employers' association said the union has refused to say whether it intends to bargain next week, but Sims said in an interview the BCTF has not left the table.

She said she remains confident the two sides can reach a deal before their contract expires June 30, despite the fact they have never managed to negotiate a contract since the provincewide bargaining was instituted more than 12 years ago.

But Sims insisted that teachers who took "a very courageous stand" last fall when they staged a 10-day illegal strike for improved classroom conditions and a salary increase aren't going to settle for eight per cent. She said the union needs a 20 per cent hike to bring salaries into line with those offered in Ontario and Alberta.

Without a decent increase, the province won't be able to retain teachers and attract new ones, she said, adding that B.C. salaries have slipped from first or second in Canada to eighth and school districts are already having problems finding enough teachers.

The problem is particularly acute for schools looking for substitute teachers and many districts are bringing uncertified people into classrooms when teachers are away, she said.

For example, she noted Prince George regularly employs a 19-year-old woman with only one year of university training. Prince George superintendent Dick Chambers said the woman speaks French and is to be restricted to elementary-school French classes.

Hugh Finlayson, executive director of the employers' association, said the salary offer now on the table is in line with other public-sector settlements reached this year. And, teachers will be eligible for a signing bonus -- roughly $3,000 to $4,000 for every teacher -- if a deal is reached before June 30.

The association disputes the union's claim that B.C. salaries are eighth among provinces. Beyond salaries, the B.C. contract includes benefits, such as paid preparation time, that are not part of the Alberta contract, for example.

Copyright Victoria Times-Colonist, 2006.