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B.C. teachers talks off to a rocky start as back-to-school looms

Talks to avert a teachers strike were off to a bumpy start Tuesday when the head of the union declared only a few hours in that negotiations weren't going well.

The talks resumed after a summer break Tuesday afternoon, but Susan Lambert, president of the B.C. Teachers Federation, said she was quickly disappointed with the direction.

"At this point, it seems that government has not changed what we're now calling its 'sub-zero mandate,' " Ms. Lambert said in an interview two hours after the discussions began. "It has not gone back and reviewed that. That's disappointing."

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The B.C. government has said its difficult financial circumstances mean that public-sector contracts up for renewal – the teachers' contract among then – must be negotiated with a net-zero mandate.

That means if teachers are to get the wage gains they've demanded, they'll have to give up something else to make up the cost.

But Ms. Lambert said the B.C. Public School Employers' Association walked into the talks asking for even more concessions.

"Government came to the table with a net-zero mandate and then they have tabled concessions on top of that. In my view, that gets you down into the negative area."

But Hugh Finlayson, president of the employers' association, called her comments "unfortunate."

"To suggest within hours of getting back to the table that things don't look good, I think that's a problem," he said.

"I think we need to take the two agendas and inject some realism into the two agendas and start to have some meaningful, non-rhetorical discussions."

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The teachers want better class-size controls and wage increases that return B.C. teachers to the top pay echelons in Canada, after their salaries dropped to eighth nationally during the term of their last contract.

The union is also looking for benefit increases, including more paid bereavement leave.

Teachers voted 90-per-cent in favour of strike action earlier this summer and plan to restrict non-teaching classroom work as the school year commences.

Mr. Finlayson rejected Ms. Lambert's suggestion that the employer has become entrenched in a position the teachers simply can't swallow.

"Two-thirds of the public sector have settled with a net-zero mandate," he said.

"We will explore options with the [union], we're prepared to hear what their options are, we're prepared to lay each of the settlements on the table from the rest of the public sector and ask the question 'What can be learned from that?' "

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Unlike other public-sector unions, though, the teachers headed into contract talks with an important court ruling which found the government wrongfully took away their right to bargain class size in 2002 legislation.

Ms. Lambert said earlier this year she expected this round of bargaining to redress that.

The B.C. Public School Employers' Association comprises school trustees and ministry officials and has met with the union 25 times since March 1.

Prior to Tuesday, the last meetings were at the beginning of July. No bargaining has taken place since, despite the looming back-to-school date for classes Sept. 6.

Ms. Lambert said the break was by mutual agreement, though Mr. Finlayson said the employers' association was willing to meet during August.

"Well, you have to have a bit of summer holiday," Ms. Lambert said.

"You have to have a bit of down time in this job, and also you have to have agreement of both sides to negotiate. That was the agreement … that these were the dates that were mutually agreed to."

The Canadian Press

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