By: Korie Marshall

Thursday May 29th was the first strike day for teachers in the Robson Valley, and as they were heading to the picket lines, they heard their union has extended the rotating strikes.

Even before the rotating strikes were announced, local teachers have been asked by their students why they are “refusing to work.” Shauna Whetter, teacher at Valemount Secondary School says she’s heard the question.

“I ask them ‘What do you see? Yes, I am striking, but what looks different to you?’ and they say ‘Nothing,’” says Whetter, while standing with her daughter on the picket line, referring to the fact that until this week the strike had not affected students very much. She says many of the students have been hearing about the strike action at home and through media, but when local teachers ask the students what is different in the classroom, they say they don’t notice anything different. Whetter says their job action hadn’t affected local students until this week, when the government locked the teachers out.

“I think it was going really well in our stage 1 job action, we weren’t affecting the kids in the classroom,” says Karrie Iselmoe. “But now the government has put this partial lock-out on us, and it’s not fair; it is now harming the kids.” She says this week has been impacting her classes because she is planning during one class for her next class, or for the next day, when she would usually be helping students.

“And my marking has gotten out of control. I normally like to give kids feedback right away after a test, the next day. I can’t do that anymore,” says Iselmoe. She says it is important to give them feedback quickly, or they don’t know what they’ve learned, and what they need help with.

Minister of Education Peter Fassbender says stage 1 job action did affect students, though differently in each district. He says the BCTF made it clear their goal was to put pressure on the government, and there would have been no pressure if it was not affecting student. He says some districts had to cancel recess and change times for classes, especially those with less administrative staff. School District 57 was one that cancelled recesses, though Tina Cousins, president of the Prince George District Teachers Association, did not agree it was necessary.

Fassbender says the teachers should not expect to get full pay when they’ve withdrawn services, and he says they didn’t need to get approval from the Labour Relations Board to dock wages. The BC Teachers Federation has taken it to the Board because they don’t believe it is appropriate. However Fassbender does acknowledge the employers had to issue lockout notice for the wage reduction to be deemed legal under the labour code.

“The government did not initiate lockout action, we simply mirrored what the BCTF was instructing their teachers to do,” he says.

Fassbender says he doesn’t want to speculate, but if the union were to stop job action and say it would be at the table with the government 24/7 until a deal is hammered out, it is possible the government would return any wages lost at this stage. “I think that would be a significant step on their part to show they want to get a negotiated settlement,” he says.

However the sides are still far apart on what has been put on the table. Fassbender says the government’s offer is in line with other public sector settlement, but the BCTF’s offer is significantly higher. He says class size and position have been on the table to bargain, but the union’s position has not been to bargain it. He says their position has been “give us what we are asking for, and that is go back to 2001 levels, then we will be happy.”

“That is not bargaining,” says Fassbender, “that is an ultimatum.” He says the cost of that would be $2 billion, which represents about $1100 for every tax payer, “without any conviction that it is going to significantly enhance learning outcomes for students.” He says that is not affordable, though he does agree teachers have a right to a raise.

A statement from the BCTF when the rotating strike days were announced says the teachers have not had a raise since 2010, and the government’s offer was two more years of no raises. The BCTF had not responded directly to our questions by press time.

Whetter and Iselmoe both say there are teachers worried about getting into trouble for continuing extracurricular activities, because of the partial lock out. “It is such a grey area, it changes every day,” says Iselmoe.

Up until this week, Whetter says the only thing they haven’t done is attend meetings with administration, and now teachers are being docked 10 per cent of their pay, while their employer partially locks them out. Whetter and Iselmoe say they’ve already received their pay stubs with the reduction, although the Labour Relations Board hearing between the union and the employers association wasn’t scheduled until May 29th.

“It makes you question your value to your employer,” says Whetter, referring to the wage reduction and how quickly it was processed on their paystubs.

Fassbender says there will be no penalty from government or the employers if the teachers choose to take part in graduation ceremonies, sports days, or any activities outside of their normal teaching hours. “And they are covered by Worksafe BC at events sanctioned by the school or the school district,” he says.

The BC Teachers Federation announced it will continue the rotating strikes for another week, with Tuesday June 3rd set for the second strike day for School District 57. A decision on the lock out and wage reduction was not expected from the Labour Relations Board until June 4th.