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B.C. teachers strike as sides return to table in long-standing dispute

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Anya Prokopeva, 8, a grade 3 student in New Westminister, uses a strike sign for shade rests as her mom Julie Prokopeva, a member of the support staff at Killarney Secondary School, walks a picket line outside the school in Vancouver, B.C., on Monday May 26, 2014. Public school teachers across British Columbia started rotating strikes Monday, a move that will put more than half a million students out of class for one day each this week. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

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Anya Prokopeva, 8, a grade 3 student in New Westminister, uses a strike sign for shade rests as her mom Julie Prokopeva, a member of the support staff at Killarney Secondary School, walks a picket line outside the school in Vancouver, B.C., on Monday May 26, 2014. Public school teachers across British Columbia started rotating strikes Monday, a move that will put more than half a million students out of class for one day each this week. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

VANCOUVER - As British Columbia teachers walked picket lines on Monday, the union and its employer resumed bargaining with pledges to stop further escalation in a dispute that has forced families to make alternate plans for half a million schoolchildren.

All parties in the simmering conflict were lamenting the closure of schools in Vancouver and 15 other districts in job action launched by the union as part of four days of rotating strikes.

B.C. Education Minister Peter Fassbender said he was grieved to see children pulled into a labour dispute, but firmly stated the government wouldn't force a resolution.

"I have said consistently, (and) the premier has, we want a negotiated settlement. To rush to legislation is not where we're going to go," he told reporters in Victoria.

BC Teachers' Federation president Jim Iker said he was hopeful that the heightened job action would pressure the employer to make a new offer.

"Our goal is not to be on the picket line. We didn't want to be doing this," he said outside Charles Dickens elementary school in Vancouver. "What I'm hoping for is we start making the necessary progress at the bargaining table so we get closer to a deal."

Teachers sporting signs from their necks walked loops around their institutions, describing the back-and-forth dealings over the week leading up to the strike with words like "confusing," "frustrating" and "crazy."

But they were also optimistic that an agreement could be reached.

"I guess we hope it's going to lead some place good, eventually," said Tami McDirmid, who teaches grades five to seven.

"Everybody seems to have a different story. So I guess we're learning to be patient, we're learning to wait for clear direction from our union."

Parent Christy Thomas, whose 10-year-old daughter was heading to gymnastics camp for the day, brought teachers banana muffins and said she felt like the government was "acting like bullies."

"I've just been shocked at the kind of tactics in the background and my eyes are just becoming opened to the politics involved here. I find it shocking when you're dealing with the children."

In parallel with the strike, which was set to run one day for each school district through Thursday, the province said it planned to start cutting teachers' pay by 10 per cent.

Iker said another round of job action could take place next week if the conflict was not resolved swiftly, but union members would take a vote before advancing to stage three action.

While more than 40,000 teachers take turns being off the job, unionized school support staff said they'd honour the lines.

Iker conceded the BCTF was leaving it up to members to decide whether or to take part in extracurricular activities.

There's been plenty of confusion whether events and activities would be cancelled with several letters passing between the employers association and the union over recent days setting out particular rules. Fassbender said he wanted to correct the misinformation, explaining that any teacher at any activity will be covered by workers' compensation provisions.

BC Federation of Labour president Jim Sinclair also joined teachers on the lines, and said the broader, provincial labour movement supports the union in a goal for long-term labour peace.

"The labour movement will not support back to work legislation ordering teachers back to work," he said. "If they try the other way then they're going to be dealing with the entire labour movement."

The sticking points in the dispute are pay, class size and classroom support.

On Sunday, Peter Cameron, the government's lead negotiator, said the province is offering a 7.3 per cent wage increase over six years; Iker said teachers want 13.7 per cent over four years.

Cameron, who represents the BC Public School Employers' Association, said teachers' demands would cost each taxpayer roughly $1,100.

In April, teachers stopped supervising students outside the classroom or communicating in writing with administrators.

The government offered to cut its initial 10-year contract proposal to six years while offering a $1,200 signing bonus.

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