News

Second mediator bows out of B.C. teacher strike

By Tamsyn Burgmann, The Canadian Press

VANCOUVER - Mediation is off the table for now in the ongoing labour dispute between British Columbia's striking teachers and their employer, after a second proposed mediator said the parties were not in a place where he could help.

The teachers' union and the government each placed the blame on the other Wednesday for bringing the conflict to a stalemate.

"He had some exploratory discussions with the parties and determined that mediation is not indicated at this time," the BC Teachers' Federation and BC Public School Employers' Association said in a joint news release.

No further talks are scheduled.

The two parties had agreed to approach Supreme Court Judge Stephen Kelleher last week about stepping in after veteran mediator Vince Ready said he was unavailable due to his work schedule.

Union president Jim Iker pointed a finger at the government for putting up an obstacle to bargaining, saying it wanted to impose a "series of unworkable pre-conditions" prior to entering mediation. He said government was asking the union to agree to a specific wage offer before it would disclose its proposal for improving classroom conditions.

"The preconditions would have pre-determined the outcome," he said during a news conference. "I hope the government will reconsider its restrictive approach."

But Education Minister Peter Fassbender refuted the charge, saying the government has repeatedly stated it will not divert from the wage offer it has agreed to with about half of all other public sector unions.

He said regardless of whether a mediator gets involved, the union must move into what the government has dubbed its "affordability zone." The minister said the millions of dollars in benefits being sought by teachers are the chasm between the two parties.

"This government is not going to go into deficit to satisfy the needs of the BCTF," he told reporters during a conference call. "Until they get realistic, we get caught in this standoff."

With a negotiated deal looking increasingly unlikely, Fassbender reiterated that government will not move to legislate teachers back to work.

But he declined to say just what options the ministry is considering "to ensure students are looked after" come September, as promised.

More than 40,000 teachers walked off the job on June 17, casting about half a million students out of classes about two weeks before the summer break.

The province's 60 school districts were deliberating on Wednesday how to handle the dispute's impact on summer school, which the teachers have previously announced they'll picket.

Last week, the B.C. Labour Relations Board ruled schools must hold summer classes for students in Grades 10 to 12 who failed a course, but only if the course won't be on the time-table next year. The board asked school districts to compile a list of these courses, although several districts have already announced closures.

The Vancouver School Board said it would shut down for the summer because it has no students who meet the labour tribunal order's requirements.

"This is really unfortunate," Supt. Steve Cardwell said in a statement. "However, the reality is that without our teaching and support staff due to the prospect of picket lines at our school sites, summer school will not be able to happen."

Chilliwack, Williams Lake and Campbell River will also cancel summer classes but have not said if the board's ruling will force them to offer courses considered essential. Prince George said it has no courses meeting the criteria and will also cancel all summer classes.

Abbotsford will make courses the labour board deemed essential accessible through the district's online learning website.

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