The union representing 41,000 teachers in British Columbia has voted overwhelmingly in favour of job action, although its president says there will be no immediate school closures or disruptions to students, and members are committed to a negotiated settlement.
The B.C. Teachers' Federation announced late Thursday night that 26,051 teachers, or 89 per cent of those who cast ballots, voted in favour of taking job action during a three-day provincewide vote.
Teachers have been without a contract since June 2013, and outstanding issues include wages, class sizes and class composition.
The results of the vote mean the union now has 90 days to initiate some kind of job action if it chooses to.
"The strike vote is the first stage to put pressure on," said Jim Iker, the union president. "For us it's not about going on strike. We don't want to go on strike. We want a deal at the bargaining table."
He asked the government to take back what he termed "unreasonable proposals" and offer teachers a fair deal that provides better supports for students.
When asked, however, how much of a wage increase the teachers want, Iker declined to give a figure. He said the union will discuss the matter at the bargaining table and not during a news conference.
In a statement following the release of the strike vote result, Minister of Education Peter Fassbender said both sides have tools available to increase pressure during bargaining and he respects the process.
"A strike vote does create additional uncertainty for students, parents, support workers and teachers," he said. "That's precisely why we need long-term stability in our schools and why we need to pursue a long-term agreement at the bargaining table."
Fassbender said, though, that the government's bargaining team has tabled a comprehensive initial position that includes a 6.5 per cent wage increase in the first six years.
He said class size and composition are also on the bargaining table, and that's where those discussions will occur.
"We will continue to seek a long-term agreement that's fair for teachers, affordable for taxpayers, and that puts the interests of students first."
The ministry also announced Fassbender will discuss the strike vote Friday morning.
Meantime, Iker said the union will return to the bargaining table Friday and negotiations are planned for next week. He said both sides will then talk about future meetings, too.
Iker said no immediate job action is planned but it will depend on what happens during negotiations.
If job action happens, it will come in stages, he said, and will at first be administrative. He said there will be no immediate school closures or disruptions to students. He said any initial job action will not ask teachers to stop participating in extracurricular activities or affect reports cards or communications to parents.
Iker said teachers will need to cast ballots in another provincewide vote before any full-scale walkout.
The last time the province's public school teachers held a legal strike was March 2012, when about 570,000 students were left without classes for about three days.
The relationship has remained contentious, and at the end of January, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Susan Griffin struck down legislation that removed class size and composition provisions from the teachers' contract, concluded the government tried to provoke a strike, and awarded the teachers' union $2 million in damages.
The case actually dates back to 2002, when Liberals used legislation to remove various contract clauses related to size and composition of classrooms.
In 2011, the B.C. Supreme Court struck down that legislation as unconstitutional. A year later, the government passed a similar law, which retroactively removed classroom conditions from the contract but allowed the issues to be discussed in future negotiations.
This past February, Education Minister Peter Fassbender announced the provincial government would appeal Griffin's decision, saying the court ruling was not affordable for taxpayers and would create disruptions in schools.
The provincial government has since successfully applied to have January's court ruling put on hold until that appeal is heard.