News

Vote unlikely to prompt immediate teachers' strike

By Tamsyn Burgmann, The Canadian Press

VANCOUVER - A pivotal strike vote this Monday and Tuesday by British Columbia's teachers is no schoolyard game of chicken, and experts advise that tiptoeing, rather than stampeding, towards a strike or back-to-work legislation may settle the dispute far more quickly.

Frustrations in what will likely be a strong union vote of support for a full strike could be channelled into pressure at the bargaining table, said University of the Fraser Valley Associate Prof. Fiona McQuarrie.

"With the emotions running as high as they are, whoever decides to escalate this first is going to take a big risk," said McQuarrie, who's in the university's school of business. "If the dispute then blows up totally out of hand, they're going to be seen as the ones who made that happen."

The B.C. Teachers' Federation's call-to-arms comes after weeks of incrementally rising tactics that haven't resulted in the movement from the government to the extent the union wanted.

McQuarrie is expecting a successful vote, which she said gives union negotiators more leverage. Completely shutting down the workplace, however, she said would be the "last big thing" teachers could do.

Charles Ungerleider, a former B.C. deputy minister of education, said he, too, doesn't expect an affirmative vote will prompt the union to issue immediate notice.

"The fact that you're taking a strike vote doesn't indicate that you're necessarily going to a strike," said Ungerleider, a bureaucrat under the New Democrats from 1998 to 2001 and now professor emeritus with the University of British Columbia.

The union has typically gone back to its members for a strike mandate over the years he's witnessed bargaining, he said, in order to move up the ladder of escalation in a way that gives teachers some control.

But what has been different in this round of negotiations, Ungerleider said, is the "encouraging" government pledge to hold off legislating a settlement. He believes the union's chief concern isn't wages but getting traction around classroom conditions.

He has some sympathy for teachers, he added.

"There's no question that teachers have lost ground in terms of their own purchasing power," he said. "I'm pretty sure they've lost ground relative to other similarly educated people working in the public sector."

The parties have appeared consistently divided over wages and whether classroom size and composition has a place in contract negotiations.

The union says it's asking for a 9.75 per cent wage increase over four years, but the government calculates that including cost of living increases and other benefits the demand is closer to 19 per cent.

The government's bargaining arm has offered 7.3 per cent over six years, along with a $1,200 signing bonus if the deal is made before the end of the school year.

The government is expected to save $12 million in teachers' salaries and $4.5 million in support staff pay for each day of a potential strike, according to the education ministry.

So far, rotating strikes have saved the government $16.5 million each week. An additional $1.2 million per day has accrued by cutting teachers' pay 10 per cent based on an employer-imposed lockout.

Teacher Aeryn Williams is still hoping a strike can be averted with a change of heart from the government.

"Everybody is emotional about this. It's our kids and our jobs and our life being impacted," said Williams, who teaches Grades 2 and 3 in Vancouver.

"I would support a strike where we would walk out now."

The union initiated its first stage of job action on April 23, then launched stage two with rotating strikes a month later. It announced the prospect of a full-scale strike last Wednesday.

The employer announced late Friday it has applied to the B.C. Labour Relations Board asking the tribunal to designate the marking of exams for students in Grades 10 through 12 as essential.

Results of a strike vote are expected Tuesday night. The union is required to give three days notice before members walk off the job. The earliest possible date for school closures across B.C. would be June 16.

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