BCTF 'in their own orbit' with contract demands, education minister says

BCTF ‘in their own orbit’ with contract demands, education minister says

VICTORIA – The B.C. government and its striking teachers are "not even close" to settling their contract dispute, and are actually further apart after several days of bargaining this week, says the province’s education minister.

Peter Fassbender said Thursday the B.C. Teachers’ Federation executive members remain "in their own orbit" with contract demands that are twice as expensive as what 150,000 other public sector employees have already settled for, despite several days of bargaining this week.

"I’m disappointed," Fassbender said in a statement. "We are now further away from an agreement than we were a week ago. We want to give teachers a raise but the BCTF leadership is making that virtually impossible."

The government’s latest offer, which includes a seven per cent raise over six years and a $1,200 signing bonus is "at the very limit of what we can afford," said Fassbender.

At a press conference, Fassbender said the government simply cannot afford the teachers’ demands.

"We are not even close in where we need to be in order to get a negotiated agreement," he told reporters in Vancouver.

But he stopped short of any suggestion the government will legislate the striking 41,000 teachers back to work.

"We want an agreement by June 30," Fassbender said. "And I can clearly say, and will say, we are not interested in legislating the teachers back to work. That is a pattern that we’ve seen far too long and we are not interested in doing that."

He said legislation is not an option even if the current provincewide strike drags through the summer and into the fall.

"How long this dispute lasts is entirely in the hands of the BCTF," said Fassbender.

The BCTF is asking for an eight per cent raise over five years, along with a $5,000 per teacher signing bonus and a $225 million annual fund to deal with class size and composition. The union also wants a $225 million fund, over five years, to deal with retroactive grievances, as well as improvements to health benefits, teaching conditions and professional development.

The government has offered to continue its $75 million annual Learning Improvement Fund.

Moments before Fassbender’s press conference, the B.C. Teachers’ Federation called upon government to appoint a mediator in the dispute.

The union accused government of "continued stonewalling" and said there’s been no progress during two days of resumed bargaining this week.

"BC teachers have moved significantly at the bargaining table to bring the two sides closer together, but we have not seen similar efforts from Christy Clark’s government," BCTF president Jim Iker said in a news release.

"If Christy Clark agrees to mediation and allows government negotiators to come enter that process with a more open mind, we can get a deal."

Fassbender said he is "open to anything" but wants his bargaining team to discuss the issue first.

"I’ve not said we’re against a mediator, if that’s what the BCTF is calling for we’re more than happy to sit down with them," he said.

Teachers launched a full-scale strike this week, after previous rotating strike and 16 months of failed negations for a new contract.

Education Minister Peter Fassbender’s statement Thursday:

"On Sunday, the British Columbia Public School Employers’ Association (BCPSEA) tabled an affordable, creative and comprehensive package to end the stalemate, get kids back in school and create long-term stability for parents, student and teachers.

"That comprehensive offer for settlement included the special $1,200 signing bonus for a deal by June 30, an improved wage offer, guaranteed funding for class composition, and bridging provisions to address the court case.

"The comprehensive package is fully in line with the wage increases and affordable agreements already reached by nearly 150,000 public sector workers. It was not tabled lightly. It was made clear to the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) that we put our best possible offer on the table and it was aimed at concluding this round of bargaining.

"On Wednesday, the BCTF presented their full set of demands. They filled in their blanks and clarified their positions. And instead of moving us closer, their latest demands moved them further away from the affordability zone for public sector settlements.

"Their wage and benefit demands alone are more than twice what other unions have settled for. On top of that, they are pushing for hundreds of millions more each year in other contract demands.

"I’m disappointed. We are now further away from an agreement than we were a week ago. We want to give teachers a raise but the BCTF leadership is making that virtually impossible.

"What BCPSEA has offered is already at the very limit of what we can afford. We cannot split the difference. Our government has a fundamental commitment to balance the budget and we have an obligation to deal fairly with all 300,000 B.C. public sector workers.

"I want to be clear that BCPSEA is not walking away from the table and we remain committed to reaching an agreement by June 30. Nor is government interested in legislating a contract.

"We appreciate that brings with it the possibility that this strike could go on for quite a while. How long it will last is entirely up to the BCTF – but any hope of timely resolution will require the BCTF

executive to be realistic.

"We accept that they want to get the best possible deal for their members, but teachers need to understand that the best possible deal is one that lands squarely in the same affordable zone as the settlements government has already reached with other public sector unions.

"The government and BCPSEA remain committed to working with the BCTF achieve the best possible deal for teachers – while keeping it fair for other workers and affordable for taxpayers."

For more stories from the Vancouver Sun, click here.

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