VANCOUVER - Graduation and exams for British Columbia's half-a-million public school students are in jeopardy as the teachers' union threatens to launch a full-blown strike.
The B.C. Teachers' Federation is asking the province's more than 40,000 teachers to vote on escalating job action next Monday and Tuesday, with the potential for a full strike starting as early as June 16.
"The time has come to apply more pressure to the negotiating table," said union president Jim Iker on Wednesday. "To get a fair deal and better supports for students, it's time to exert the maximum pressure possible."
The threat was levelled immediately after the B.C. Labour Relations Board ruled the provincial government was within its right to dock teachers' pay by 10 per cent.
A third week of rotating strikes will also commence next week, Iker said, following the pattern of each district being disrupted for one day a week.
The union is legally obligated to give B.C. families three days notice before a full-blown walk out. Teachers last put up picket lines for 10 consecutive days in October 2005.
"The vote itself will apply pressure on both sides and hopefully spur the movement needed from the employer to help us reach that deal," Iker said.
Education Minister Peter Fassbender said the vote doesn't change the government's resolve to get an agreement by the end of June.
"Our goal remains a lasting, negotiated settlement that ends the disruption for parents, students and teachers and puts the system on a path to stability before the start of the next school year," he said in a statement.
Fassbender said the government has put a fair wage offer on the table that's in line with similar agreements covering nearly 116,000 public-sector workers. He said the offer includes a $1,200 signing bonus if a deal is reached before the end of June.
"A full strike is only going to keep more students out of their classrooms, create more disruption for parents, while teachers and support workers caught in the middle will lose even more in wages," he said.
"There is no bottomless pit of money and the rotating strikes are certainly not going to help teachers’ and support workers’ pocketbooks."
Iker said the union executive decided to hold the strike vote even before the ruling from the Labour Relations Board came down.
The union claimed during a board hearing last week that the B.C. Public School Employers' Association wasn't allowed to modify the existing collective agreement. But the employer's lawyer told the board it had the authority to cut pay since teachers were picking and choosing which duties to perform.
The employer has said it would lift the lockout and stop chopping pay only if teachers returned to the classroom.
On Tuesday, the union dropped its wage demand by one percentage point, bringing the request into the range 12 per cent over four years. The employer has been offering 7.3 per cent over six years.
The union said it was also prepared to yield on seven other issues, including preparation time, benefits and teaching-on-call compensation. But the altered package was not met with further concessions, said an email fanned out to update teachers.
The employer's chief negotiator, Peter Cameron, called the wage reduction "disappointing."
"When you factor all the way through, it's still many, many times greater than the current level of settlements elsewhere," Cameron said, adding he's losing optimism a deal can be negotiated before the end of the school year.
Iker said the union still has its sights on getting a deal before the school year ends, but should an all-out strike be launched it would have a massive impact.
"That means all schools will be closed, there will be no instruction happening and therefore, there will be no other activities happening."
Teachers were not striking on Wednesday, although small pockets of students across the province staged their own mini-demonstrations by leaving classes.
Student Teyana MacLean-Mio, who joined a protest outside the Vancouver Art Gallery, said she was sure the government could shuffle funds from a "less important" program to education.
"The government, they always seem to have money somewhere," said the 16 year old, who attends Point Grey secondary school.
"But education is key, you need that. In 20 years we're going to be doctors and lawyers and stuff. You need us. So taking away our education and making it as bad as it is now is not smart."
The union contract expired in June 2013.