Public school strike in B.C. derails school year

VANCOUVER – Queena Zeng anticipated her final year of high school would be fairly stressful, packed with SAT cram sessions and the nerve-racking wait for university acceptance letters.

Instead, Zeng, 17, is afraid crucial learning time is being wasted for her and half-a-million other British Columbia public school students who won’t be starting their school year on time.

While the rest of the country’s children went back to class on Tuesday, the province’s fall term began under the cloud of a teachers’ strike that started 14 weeks ago and has no apparent end in sight.

“Personally, my friends, we feel neglected. We’re just here on the sidewalks waiting for something to happen,” said Zeng, who should be attending Grade 12 at Steveston-London Secondary School in Richmond, B.C.

“Nobody knows the answer and it’s tough. People do want to go back to school.”

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The province’s more than 40,000 teachers have been without a contract since June 2013. The union mounted escalating stages of labour action starting last April in an attempt to get movement from the employer at the bargaining table. After three weeks of rotating strikes, teachers launched a full-scale walkout about two weeks before the end of the last school year.

Bargaining has been limited, with a single meeting in early August between the B.C. Teachers’ Federation and B.C. Public School Employers’ Association, which acts on behalf of the government. Last hopes were pegged on a flurry of talks with a veteran mediator over the long weekend, but negotiations broke down when Vince Ready declared an impasse because the sides are too far apart.

Both parties accuse each other of refusing to budge on contract demands, with the government suggesting the gulf is $300 million while the union says it has already chopped $100 million from its proposal. No new meetings have been scheduled.

Union president Jim Iker said the teachers’ No. 1 priority is getting a guaranteed funding to improve class size, class composition and increasing the number of specialist teachers. Wages and the term of the contract are within distance, in his view.

“We don’t want to be out on the line. We would rather be in our schools today,” Iker told reporters on Tuesday as teachers picketed outside Vancouver’s Britannia Secondary. “(But) for us to relieve all pressure on government, that’s not going to get us a deal.”

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Publicly, resolve on the picket line was firm.

Kitsilano Secondary School teacher Tobey Steeves, who has a six-month-old baby with his wife who’s also a teacher, said his family has been forced to draw on savings, build debt and borrow from family.

They’re willing to handle the current discomfort for what he considers “the strike of my life” to fight for children’s needs, he said.

“How long will I be able to endure in this situation? I feel like I’ll be able to endure as long as it takes because I feel like that’s what I have to do.”

About 600 educators and their supporters also congregated for a protest rally outside the legislature in Victoria, turning its front lawn into what they mockingly referred to as “Christy’s classroom,” referring to Premier Christy Clark.

Victoria-area teacher Ray Stewart, who brought his three young children to the protest, said the conflict has taken a toll on his health.

“I feel pretty terrible. I’m losing sleep,” said Stewart. “It just hurts inside that I can’t get to the kids. I can’t do what I want to do properly.”

Education Minister Peter Fassbender has repeatedly stated government will not legislate the teachers back to work and Iker said the union doesn’t want that outcome either.

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The union rejected Fassbender’s proposal last week for teachers to temporarily suspend strike action so school could start on time. He also asked the BCTF to put aside grievances related to court decisions — now under appeal by the government — that ruled the removal of the union’s right to bargain classroom conditions was illegal.

The government is giving $40 per day to parents of children 12 and under for each day the strike continues to supplement child care and tutoring costs.

— With files from Dirk Meisener in Victoria