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B.C. teachers head back to class amid stalled contract negotiations

It's been a busy morning for kids and parents as most students in the province head back to school. But there's a cloud of uncertainty surrounding teaching staff now back at work without a contract. Sarah MacDonald reports.

As students across B.C. head back to class this week, they’re being joined by teachers who’ve yet to reach a contract deal with the province.

Mediated talks between the BC Teachers’ Federation and the BC Public School Employers’ Association stalled ahead of the Labour Day weekend, and have been suspended until Sept. 23.

The BCTF’s last six-year contract expired in June.

On Tuesday, BCTF president Terri Mooring said the key sticking points in negotiations haven’t changed since the two sides started talking in the spring.

READ MORE: B.C. teacher contract talks on hold until after school year starts

“We were facing concessions at the bargaining table, so increases to class size, elimination of composition language and a reduction in specialist teacher ratios,” said Mooring. “So that’s been contentious since the very start.”

Both sides say negotiations this time around are particularly complicated, since it is the first time the two sides have bargained since the landmark 2016 Supreme Court of Canada victory for teachers that restored class size and composition contract provisions.

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And while teachers have not been threatening to strike as of yet, Mooring wouldn’t rule the possibility out on Tuesday.

“We haven’t had a vote. And that’s the problem with uncertainty, is it’s hard to predict what’s going to happen,” she said.

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“I can’t predict what the employer is going to do at the bargaining table. And so therefore it’s hard to predict what’s going to happen. We certainly don’t want that. We would rather have a quick deal, but a good deal also.

WATCH: One-on-one with BC Teachers’ Federation President Teri Mooring

One-on-one with BC Teachers’ Federation President Teri Mooring
One-on-one with BC Teachers’ Federation President Teri Mooring

READ MORE: B.C. education minister expects ‘normal’ start to school year amidst teacher contract dispute

Education Minister Rob Fleming said he’s confident the two sides can find common ground before the situation escalates.

Fleming said his government had reached deals with nearly a quarter million public employees so far within its Sustainable Services Mandate, which limits wage increases to two per cent annually.

And he said his government wasn’t ruling out a version of a contract that involved no concessions on class size and composition.

“There’s a lot of options that have been discussed and bargained at the table, including one that has no changes at all to the language,” Fleming told Global News.

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“So we’ll resume talks, we’ll use the mediator to try and get to an agreement. I see no reason why we can’t do that for teachers; we’ve done it with nurses, for example, and other professionals that work for British Columbians.”

However, the BCTF said the contract proposal Fleming mentioned was never brought to the bargaining table.

Mooring said teachers are also concerned about wages, which she said are the ninth lowest in Canada. She said while teachers recognize the two per cent salary limits, there are other tweaks, such as salary grid changes or market adjustments, the government could make.

WATCH: One-on-one with BC Education Minister Rob Fleming

One-on-one with BC Education Minister Rob Fleming
One-on-one with BC Education Minister Rob Fleming

READ MORE: ‘Completely untrue’: B.C. teachers’ union president says province seeking contract concessions

She said with school back in session, some 500 positions remain unfilled across the province, and failure to address wage issues will only exacerbate recruitment and retention problems.

It’s a concern Fleming dismissed, arguing that B.C. continues to see a large in-migration from other provinces in Canada.

“In British Columbia, there’s a lot of occupations where we don’t get paid the same as Alberta. That’s just the reality of the oil patch economy next door to us,” said Fleming.

“But this is an attractive place to live and work. The lifestyle in British Columbia is very desirable. And we’re training more teachers here in British Columbia as well.”

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Fleming said new teachers in B.C. are also facing the best conditions in decades, with full-time teaching positions available without candidates needing to log years as a substitute teacher first.