Mediator meets with teachers union president, government negotiator today

VICTORIA — Mediator Vince Ready has called a meeting with B.C. Teachers’ Federation president Jim Iker and chief government negotiator Peter Cameron for today, the BCTF confirmed Wednesday evening.

The move came after Education Minister Peter Fassbender proposed a truce that would allow schools to open next Tuesday.

Fassbender on Wednesday called on both sides to enter mediation as soon as possible, and to “stand down” from their strike or lockout for two weeks once mediation begins. He also asked the teachers to give up a significant part of their demands that stem from a B.C. Supreme Court decision.

Fassbender met with B.C. Teachers’ Federation president Jim Iker and the employers’ chief negotiator Peter Cameron in Victoria Wednesday afternoon as a growing number of voices called for an immediate end to the dispute.

Fassbender said he is “optimistic” that his proposal will act as a “bridge” to a negotiated settlement.

Iker emerged from the 90-minute meeting and told reporters he hopes mediation could start Thursday, though it’s not clear whether teachers will be prepared to start classes next week. Iker said he would have to meet with the BCTF executive before a decision could be reached about Fassbender’s proposal. The executive is scheduled to meet Wednesday evening.

Iker said he is hopeful government will signal to Vince Ready that they are willing to make significant moves, like more funding to improve class size and composition, that will allow mediation to be successful.

“The BCTF is ready to begin mediation at any time. Let’s get it going as soon as possible so we can reach a settlement by September 2,” Iker said.

Fassbender asked the teachers to put aside a request for a $225-million fund that deals retroactively with grievances planned after winning a B.C. Supreme Court ruling on class size and composition bargaining rights earlier this year. He said this request should be put aside until a final court decision is reached, which could be years in the future if the case is taken to the Supreme Court of Canada. The $225-million fund was proposed to pay for increased medical benefits, teacher preparation time and professional development pay over the term of a five-year contract. In return, the teachers would drop the grievances.

“The demand on potential grievances is nearly a quarter of a billion dollars a year. This matter is before the courts and will be addressed through the appeals process,” Fassbender said. “I’m not asking the BCTF to do anything prejudicial to their court case, but setting this issue aside as the appeals process takes place gives mediation a chance to succeed.”

The B.C. Supreme Court has ruled provisions related to those issues were illegally stripped from the teachers’ contract 12 years ago and that decision is under appeal.

Fassbender called the grievance element a “very significant” impediment to bargaining “from a fiscal point of view.”

Apart from the grievance fund, the two sides are close on wages and the term of the agreement, but remain millions of dollars apart on benefits and class size and composition, with the government offering to continue its existing Learning Improvement Fund, which amounts to $75 million annually, compared to the BCTF’s proposal for a $225 million annual fund on class size and composition that would be primarily used to hire additional teachers.

Both the grievance fund and the class size and composition fund have links to the court case, but the grievance fund is money teachers see as owing from the past, while the class size and composition fund is for classrooms in the future.

Mediator Vince Ready has called a meeting with Iker and Cameron for Thursday, the BCTF confirmed Wednesday evening.

Fassbender urged both sides to get into mediation as soon as possible, to determine teachers’ wages, class size and class composition, but said mediator Vince Ready would decide when to start full mediation.

“Government has no plan to legislate an end to this dispute and we are not asking either the BCTF or BCPSEA to give up their right to strike or lockout,” Fassbender said. “We are just asking them to voluntarily stand down and let classes start while the parties are in mediation.”

He said if a deal wasn’t reached after two weeks, the teachers would still have the right to strike at that time. There is no specific deadline for either side to respond to his proposal, Fassbender said.

Earlier in the day, provincial opposition, school trustees and a Vancouver parent group all called for a settlement in the teachers’ dispute to get schools open next Tuesday.

B.C.’s New Democrats called for immediate mediation and a suspension of the government lockout and the teachers’ strike so that schools can open as scheduled on Tuesday.

“Respected mediator Vince Ready has said he is prepared to come to the table to help the two sides reach a settlement, but the Liberal government continues to put up barriers to mediation,” said New Democrat education spokesperson Rob Fleming.

The Vancouver District Parents Advisory Council, elected from parent groups at 110 schools in Vancouver, also called for a negotiated settlement, as did B.C. School Trustees’ Association president Teresa Rezansoff, who said both sides should put the numbers aside and put students first.

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