Public school teachers in British Columbia are set to commence "low-level" job action, a move that in some school districts will mean the cancellation of recess and slightly shortened days.
This first stage of job action, starting Wednesday, will not result in school closings or disruption to students' education, according to the B.C. Teachers' Federation. Rather, it will target administrative duties such as the supervision of students outside of class time.
"We've been bargaining now for over a year; we took our strike vote six weeks ago and got an overwhelming mandate from our members," said BCTF president Jim Iker. "We said that we wouldn't take any action until we saw what kind of progress there was at the table … and there has been very slow progress. We thought it was time to exercise our right for collective action and start with low-level action."
As part of stage-one job action, teachers will cease all written communication with school administrators. They will also refrain from being at school more than one hour before and after instructional time and will not attend any meetings with management other than those of the work-site Joint Health and Safety Committee. Many schools have advised parents not to drop their students off earlier than five minutes before the start of class.
Teaching, report-card writing, communication with parents and participation in volunteer extracurricular activities will not be affected.
The strike activity has prompted some of the province's 60 school districts – including Quesnel, Prince Rupert, North Okanagan-Shuswap and Coast Mountains – to cancel recess and shorten the school day by about 15 minutes.
"This decision has not been taken lightly," the Coast Mountains school board said in a posting to its website. "However, without teachers to supervise during recess it is the solution that we have experienced to be the safest and least disruptive to student learning." The Coast Mountains school district includes the communities of Terrace, Thornhill, Kitimat, Kitwanga, Stewart and the Hazeltons.
The Nanaimo-Ladysmith school district said it had not yet made a decision on the cancellation of recess by late afternoon on Tuesday. Mr. Iker said he believed a total of eight school districts would be cancelling recess and called the move "very inappropriate."
"They seem to be cancelling recess because it's inconvenient to principals and other management to do it," the union president said. "The agreement that we got through the essential services designation was that the school districts would sit down with the local [teachers' unions] and work out the supervision schedules. In some cases, like Quesnel and Prince Rupert, they did that without even sitting down with the local teachers' union."
The provincewide strike vote was conducted over three days in early March, with 89 per cent of 29,301 respondents voting in support of job action. A further escalation to stage two would mean rotating strikes across the province, while a full-scale walkout would require another provincewide vote by BCTF members.
A major sticking point in the dispute has been over the right to negotiate class size and composition. In 2002, the Liberal government under premier Gordon Campbell stripped the relevant language from previous teachers' contracts – a move a B.C. Supreme Court judge twice deemed unconstitutional. The government has filed an appeal, saying that while class size and composition "are on the bargaining table," such a restoration would cost up to $1-billion and create chaos.
The teachers' union is also seeking a wage increase of 13.5 per cent over the first three years of any agreement; the government has offered 6.5 per cent over six years, followed by binding arbitration if an agreement is not reached.
Government negotiators have also pushed for a 10-year agreement with a "re-opener" clause after six years – a proposal the union has balked at.
"We have been clear that we don't support a 10-year agreement," Mr. Iker said. "We're open to a longer-term agreement, but it has to make sense to our members, for our working conditions and for our students' learning conditions. So far there is nothing on the table that entices us to a longer-term agreement."