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Bargain or bust: B.C. teachers make last thrust to end dispute as strike looms

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VANCOUVER - An emboldened BC Teachers' Federation leveraged its new strike mandate Thursday, giving 72-hours notice, while it also offered families of more than half-a-million students some hope for progress in negotiations before Tuesday's job action.

BCTF president Jim Iker warned that teachers were ready to walk, but added that the union would present a revised contract proposal to the B.C. government's bargaining agent that "absolutely" included lowered wage demands.

But more than 40,000 teachers were also instructed to pack up personal belongings and wish their students goodbye for the summer more than two weeks early.

"There are still several days left during which both sides can hunker down, reach a settlement," Iker said after declaring picket lines would go up on Tuesday if no headway was made over the weekend. "We're ready to move."

There will be no school on Monday either, as teachers planned to be off-site for "study sessions" — essentially, one more day of rotating strike action — where they will discuss the new contact proposal or any progress made over the weekend, Iker said.

B.C.'s education minister said he had listened to Iker's announcement and was "optimistic, quite honestly" to hear the union was modifying its demands.

"I hope that the light at the end of the tunnel is that on Monday we have a tentative agreement that will end this and allow the school year to end on a positive note," Peter Fassbender said, although he did not know details of the package.

The prospect of movement came at the same time the employer received a decision from the B.C. Labour Relations Board dictating teachers must still mark provincial exams for senior students and have final grades ready for graduating students.

The tribunal said teachers must be available to supervise provincial exams scheduled for Grades 10 through 12 students between June 16 to 24. Fassbender, however, said it was still possible the government might contract the marking out.

The minister also said a province-imposed lockout will be lifted so students can attend summer school, but it was up to the union as to whether teachers would participate.

Parents whose children attend Elsie Roy Elementary school in Vancouver weren't impressed that the situation had gotten to this point.

"I'm actually furious that education is being used as a bargaining chip in all of this," said Coleen Rojas, whose son is in Grade 1. "I don't have a side to take, but families in Vancouver should not be collateral damage."

Striking to get a resolution was not the best way to solve the conflict, said Jill Carter, whose son is in Grade 2.

"I understand the teachers' position but this just impacts hundreds of thousands of people, all across the province," she said. "I believe there has to be some common sense on both sides."

Teachers were finishing a third week of one-day rotating strikes through districts across the province, meaning that, barring a weekend deal, it was the last day of school for students whose schools would be closed on Friday.

The union and the employers' association were heading to talks still far apart on several issues, namely wages and classroom conditions.

The union had been asking for a 9.75 increase over four years. The employers' association, meanwhile, has offered a 7.3-per-cent hike over six years, along with a $1,200 signing bonus if a deal is reached before the end of June.

The union received an 86 per cent strike mandate on Tuesday for a full-scale walkout after 16 months of contract negotiations.

Teachers are feeling "kind of helpless" as they seek to improve their lot while simultaneously having to hold back from signing field trip forms at recess or refrain from answering childrens' questions during lunch, said teacher Ig Cheung.

He believes the added strike pressure will make a real difference at the bargaining table.

"This is the time, make it or break it," said Cheung, who has been teaching for 17 years and currently instructs Grade 10 in Surrey, B.C. "This is Game Seven. Hopefully, it won't go into overtime."

___

Follow @TamsynBurgmann on Twitter

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