B.C. Premier Christy Clark waded into the B.C. teachers' strike on Wednesday, calling on teachers to suspend their strike, reduce their demands and return to the bargaining table.
But the president of the B.C. Teachers' Federation says it has no plans to suspend its strike. Jim Iker called a news conference following the premier's address and accused the government of remaining entrenched, inflexible and unwilling to bargain.
In her first news conference since classes were cancelled earlier this week, Premier Clark said Education Minister Peter Fassbender had been making a tremendous effort to resolve the contract dispute.
"But I do also recognize there are no easy fixes for this and there are no shortcuts to making sure that we can achieve long-term labour peace in the classroom for kids," said Clark.
Clark then took aim at several parts of the teachers' demands, including wages and benefits, a $5,000 signing bonus, and what she called "unlimited massage."
"They are still demanding twice as much as other public sector workers have received," said Clark. "The teachers union needs to come to the table with a proposal that is realistic."
"Other public sector employees who work just as hard have settled for far less. They didn't get a $5,000 signing bonus and they didn't get unlimited massage and an extra day off each year."
Clark's statement about massages is, in fact, a mistake. BCTF President Jim Iker says unlimited massages were never on the table. He says the union is asking for $500 to $700 for massages, not the $5,000 claimed by the premier..
"There was a proposal for $3,000 in massages for members who were in chronic pain," Iker said, "and we had to take that off the table."
Clark then repeated several times that she expected a solution to the strike would have to come at the bargaining table — not from legislation or binding arbitration.
"This dispute needs to be resolved at the bargaining table. It needs to be resolved by our negotiating teams," said Clark.
Union prepared to bargain
But Iker said the union has been prepared to bargain. He says he personally spent 14 days during the summer break trying to get a single bargaining date.
The BCTF leader claims the two sides are not that far apart — only one year apart on the length of the contract and only one per cent apart on wages.
However, the government has previously said that when benefits are factored in, the difference is closer to four per cent.
Iker says the teachers are also asking for $175 million to be set aside in a special fund in the first year while the government appeals a B.C. Supreme Court decision stemming from its 2002 decision to strip class size and composition from the teacher's collective agreement.
"Even the government’s own staff testified in court that the unconstitutional legislation they passed in 2002 stripped about $300 million a year from our classrooms," he said.
Teachers in the province have been on strike and locked out since June, and there are no talks scheduled to end the dispute that has kept public school students out of classes for the start of the school year.