Honking horns and waves of support greeted teachers demonstrating outside nearly empty schools in Greater Victoria Monday on the first morning of a three-day strike.
After more than six months of job action, the B.C. Teachers’ Federation and the provincial government remain far apart on reaching a negotiated deal.
On Feb. 27, Education Minister George Abbott tabled legislation to end the job action and impose large fines on any teachers who continue to strike.
On the same day, the Labour Relations Board gave teachers the green light to walk out up to three days this week. As long as MLAs are debating Abbott’s Education Improvement Act inside the legislature, teachers will continue to have the right to strike without fines one day per week beginning March 12.
The BCTF has been asking for a 15 per cent wage increase – a demand that clashed with the government’s “net zero” wage mandate. It’s also the demand that has sparked the most criticism from the public.
“That’s a red herring,” BCTF president Susan Lambert told the News. “That’s what the government would like you to think, but that was our initial bargaining position and we have never been able to address that at all. We will move off of every single objective that we have at the table, but that has to be done at the table.”
Michael Dodd, a teacher at École Campus View elementary and executive member of the Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association, said educators are more focused on the issue of what he calls “horrendous” class size and composition.
“We’ve seen such a deterioration over the last 10 years and that’s what we’re fighting for,” Dodd said, amidst a demonstration at the school on Monday. “We just hope there will be some change at the provincial level.”
The likelihood of seeing change and reaching a deal is virtually non-existent, according to local arbitrator and wage referee Ken Thornicroft.
“I would never say never, but in this case, I’m going to say never,” said Thornicroft, also a professor of labour relations and business law in the Peter B. Gustavson School of Business at the University of Victoria. “There is no deal to be done here. It’s going to head to a legislated outcome.”
Thornicroft isn’t at all surprised by the BCTF and the province’s inability to reach a negotiated deal, given the last two decades of bargaining history, he said.
The only time the two parties reached a deal was when the government opened the vault in hopes of avoiding any labour disputes during the Olympic Games – an outcome he just doesn’t see happening this time around.
Thornicroft poses a bigger question that reaches beyond the current dispute: why would post-secondary students enter education in such an uncertain labour market?
“There aren’t positions for every education graduate and that’s a problem,” he said. “I would be much more concerned about that than the transient effects of a three-day labour stoppage.”
Meanwhile back inside the 48 schools across the Greater Victoria School District, just 50 students arrived on Monday morning – a number low enough for principals and vice principals to handle.
“Parents were so co-operative,” said Greater Victoria School District superintendent John Gaiptman. “They understood the position we were in.”
In Saanich, some students attended day camps, pulled together on short notice.
Saanich recreation overcame staffing hurdles to provide day camp spaces to 60 students: 20 each at Pearkes, Gordon Head and Commonwealth Place recreation centres. There was a wait list for registration at Gordon Head, but spaces became available. As of Monday some vacancies remained.
“Parents were finding alternatives so they were pulling off of the list,” said Charlene Parker, manager of Gordon Head Recreation Centre. “Most parents seemed to be pretty organized. They’re not in a panic, but they’re making a good use of the time.”
As for the potential of a one-day strike next week – parents will have at least two days notice before another walkout occurs.