Bella Coola Elementary Kindergarten students take part in a field trip to Snootli Hatchery. Field trips across the province have been cancelled due to confusion over job action and insurance.

Rotating strikes continue to affect schools across the province

The rotating strike schedule is now entering its second week. Schools on the Central Coast are closed on Friday, June 6.

Local schools shut down for the day on May 26 in recognition of the job action brought forth by BC Teachers in their latest dispute with the BC Government. Teachers have been without a contract since June 2013, and despite ongoing negotiations since last April 2013, there have been little results.

While many people may be getting tired of the situation, it’s nothing new. The government and the BCTF have been at odds for years, and it doesn’t look as though either side is willing to budge. They are miles apart on critical points such as bargaining rights, class sizes, and benefits, and the teachers haven’t had a negotiated contract in 10 years.

The government has cut teachers’ salaries by ten percent because of the job action, saying that if that they are doing less work, they get less pay. But this has left several areas in a state of confusion.

Local President of the Central Coast Teacher’s Association, Marc Hedges, says that the clawback has created confusion for teacher’s trying to do their jobs. At present, teachers are in a ‘lock out’ situation, whereby they are not allowed to work during non-instructional hours (such as recess) with the exception of 45 minutes before and after school hours. This is the time when most teachers do their assessments and other duties, such as report cards.

“The British Columbia Public School Employers’ Association directed the union that teachers are under partial lock out to justify this 10 percent reduction in salary,” said Hedges. “This means that if we perform any duties during these lockout hours, such as recess, we may not be covered by WCB and may face possible discipline. So, if a teacher gets injured on the job while helping a child during these time periods, they may not have WorkSafe BC coverage.”

However, it is far from black and white. “There has never been a partial lockout situation like this in the history of BC labour,” said Hedges. “The district hasn’t given us any direction on what we can and can’t do to justify this salary deduction of ten percent. Are field trips covered during lock out hours? Are extracurricular activities covered? It’s simply unclear at this time.”

The government has stated that this isn’t the case, but the BCTF remains cautious. Meanwhile, contract negotiations continue behind closed doors. Key issues include wages and class size and composition.

British Columbia Teachers’ Federation president Jim Iker said there won’t be a deal unless the government is prepared to put appropriate class size limits, class size composition guarantees and guaranteed staffing levels for specialist teachers into the contract. At present, Kindergarten is capped at 22 students and Grade’s one to three are capped at 24 students. Grades four and above are more flexible, as individual districts have more control over the composition.

As far as wages are concerned, teachers are asking for a 13.7 per cent increase over four years. Government is offering 7.25 per cent over six years plus a signing bonus, however even the $1200 bonus failed to convince the teachers to take the deal.

“Wages simply haven’t increased in comparison to the cost of living,” said Hedges. “There is an approximately seven percent gap between the present cost of living and teachers pay, and we are some of the lowest paid teachers in the country.”

Speaking to parent advisory councils last week, BC Education Minister Peter Fassbender agreed that teachers deserve a raise. However, he articulated this point by saying that teachers’ wage demands have to be balanced against other demands on the taxpayer dollar.

“I stand before you believing that teachers deserve a raise, teachers deserve stability,” he said, to applause from the assembled parents. “But you know what? Communities deserve that as well, and the government has a responsibility to taxpayers and finding that balance between all of those things.”

Fassbender also said the government has already made concessions in its contract negotiations with the B.C. Teachers’ Federation and it was not anxious to introduce legislation to end the long-running dispute.

Many people are placing the blame for the dispute directly in the shoulders of Christy Clark. In January of this year, the B.C. Supreme Court justice ordered that the government retroactively restore class size and composition language that was removed from teachers’ contracts in 2002, and pay the B.C. Teachers Federation $2 million in damages.

The government is appealing the ruling, arguing that implementing smaller class sizes could cost as much as one billion dollars.

The rotating strike schedule is now entering its second week. Schools on the Central Coast are closed on Friday, June 6.