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Kick-start talks with right proposal: minister

Teachers at Tweedsmuir elementary school man their picket line on Monday, May 26 as part of the BC Teachers
Teachers at Tweedsmuir elementary school man their picket line on Monday, May 26 as part of the BC Teachers' Federation's rotating strikes to put pressure on contract negotiations.
— image credit: MARIO BARTEL/NEWSLEADER

By Camille Bains, The Canadian Press

VANCOUVER - As teachers staged their first day of a full-scale strike in British Columbia, the province's education minister said negotiations would resume only if the union comes to the table with a fully costed proposal.

Peter Fassbender said the government's chief negotiator was ready to go back to the bargaining table with the BC Teachers' Federation on Tuesday afternoon.

"The BCTF has not put a fully costed, comprehensive proposal on the table. That's what we're waiting for, that's what we need and negotiations can continue," he said.

Both sides failed to reach an agreement on the weekend, leading teachers to walk off the job Tuesday.

Fassbender said there's a "significant gap" between the union's demands and the government's offer.

The union's latest proposal dropped wage demands to eight per cent over five years, down from its original request of 13.5 per cent over three years. It also proposed a $5,000 signing bonus and asked for new money specifically to deal with classroom conditions.

The government is proposing a seven per cent wage hike over six years and maintaining its offer of a $1,200 signing bonus if the deal is done by June 30.

Fassbender said the government is aiming for a contract that's in line with what's been negotiated with other public-sector unions, but the BCTF's proposal appears heavy on benefits.

"It is at least two times more than what we've given to the other public-sector unions."

The start of the strike Tuesday had placard-wearing teachers walking the picket line.

In Victoria, high school counsellor Lorna Maximick said she was optimistic about an agreement but is now resolved to what could be a summer-long strike.

"I don't want to be here, standing on the street," Maximick said Tuesday. "It's been a very angst(-filled) month or six weeks. I work with Grade 12s as well as other kids, so I feel for that."

Many end-of-school events and ceremonies have been cancelled due to the labour woes that have built up since three weeks of rotating strikes began in May, with schools in each district across the province closed for a day.

The government imposed a partial lockout in response and docked teachers' pay by 10 per cent when their rotating strikes began.

"I think there's an agenda here with the provincial government, and I don't quite know what it is but I don't feel very good about it," Maximick said Tuesday on the picket line.

Educational assistants who work in classrooms were also off the job, even though they are not on strike.

Cristina Carrasco, a CUPE member, is honouring teachers' picket lines and says the strike has left assistants and many teachers unable to wish students and families a safe and happy summer.

"I'm missing the closure. We didn't have enough time to say goodbye to the children and to thank parents, so it's weird," she said.

In Delta, south of Vancouver, union president Jim Iker stood with picketing teachers and repeated complaints that all union proposals have been rejected by the government's bargaining agent.

Such claims produced a stern denial from chief government negotiator Peter Cameron, who accused Iker of misrepresenting the facts.

Wages, class size, support for students and the hiring of specialist teachers remain key issues in the strike that affects more than 40,000 teachers and about half a million students.

Some before- and after-school care centres were providing all-day care for students, as families scrambled to make arrangements during the strike.

Christine Hibbert, executive director of the Jericho Kids' Club, which runs programs at three schools in Vancouver, said only children who are already registered during the school year can be accommodated during the strike because of the lack of staff.

Hibbert said the non-profit centre run by a parents' board is charging an extra $20 a day to care for students, on top of the monthly fee that's already been paid, but that won't cover the costs involved.

Families whose kids aren't already registered at the centres have had to be turned away, she said.

"We couldn't open those floodgates. We're pretty much at capacity so there was no way we could start to take anybody else."

Hibbert said families are cobbling together their resources to get care for their children nearly two weeks before the start of the summer break. She said some people are taking time off or having friends or family help out.

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