News

B.C. teachers run out of cash as strike vote nears

BCTF president Jim Iker visits Matthew McNair Secondary in Richmond, B.C., on the first day of teachers
BCTF president Jim Iker visits Matthew McNair Secondary in Richmond, B.C., on the first day of teachers' rotating strikes around the province. (Taken on Monday, May 27, 2014.)
— image credit: Richmond Review files

By Tamsyn Burgmann, The Canadian Press

VANCOUVER - As British Columbia's unionized teachers ponder whether to follow their leadership into a full-scale walkout, the union has admitted its war chest is empty and it won't be able to dole out more strike pay.

The fund from which the union draws cash to subsidize teachers on the picket lines has been depleted and it can't cover an escalating strike, states a memo on the union's internal website.

The Collective Bargaining Defence Fund had enough money to finance up to three days of pay for rotating strikes, said the document that answers questions about the escalation vote. But it's unable to cover additional strike days "that may well be necessary in order to achieve a collective agreement."

Teachers will be paid $50 per day for rotating strikes, which have taken place one day per week for the past two weeks and are planned to carry forward through next week.

The teachers will be at work next Monday and rotating strikes will be held Tuesday through Friday.

"There is no doubt that the costs associated with continually fending off attacks on teacher rights and the collective agreement are high, but the cost of not doing so are far worse," reads the memo dated June 4 and posted in the B.C. Teachers' Federation internal website.

The prospect of a full-scale strike donned Wednesday, after the union announced it will ask teachers to support a withdrawal of all services in a vote this coming Monday and Tuesday. If a majority approves, the teachers are legally obligated to give three days notice.

A spokesman for the union wouldn't provide further information about the pay situation, only saying the BCTF is in the process of informing its members ahead of the vote. Some other public-sector unions don't pay their members until at least day four of a strike, he noted.

The memo explains the strike fund has been exhausted as a result of 12 years "defending teachers' rights," which has included court battles with the government over the removal of classroom size and composition provisions from the bargaining process.

Teachers were starting to feel the stress and become ill as the conflict intensified, said one teacher in Surrey, B.C., who asked to remain anonymous.

"Moral is not good," he said, but added he expects a majority of teachers to vote for further job action.

Regardless of whether schools are shut, the education minister pledged on Thursday that final exams will be marked and grades will be distributed to all of B.C.'s graduating students.

Education Minister Peter Fassbender said Thursday that the government will take "whatever steps" necessary to ensure critical studies are completed.

"The commitment, without any hesitation, is they will be able to finish their year, their exams, the marking of those exams — and that is not something that will be open to discussion," he told reporters.

Details hadn't yet been cemented, Fassbender said.

The union earlier this week reduced its wage demands to about 12 per cent over four years, according to a spokesman, while the employer has offered a 7.3 per cent hike over six years.

A government spokesman, however, said its own math on the union's demand puts the proposal at 14.7 per cent when compounded, or closer to about 19 per cent when other compensation costs are factored in.

The contract expired one year ago.

The parties were engaging in bargaining talks again Thursday, and Fassbender said the government is in no rush to legislate teachers back to work.

Student Mati Cormier said she blames both sides for the conflict and doesn't believe either is looking at the bigger picture.

"It's really tough when everyone is saying we might have another strike," said the 14 year old, who attends Ideal Mini School in Vancouver.

"We don't know what's going to happen. I want consistency with school and education, I want to be able to learn without being scared of what's going to happen next week."

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