Education assistants, custodians, bus drivers, and tradespeople are threatening to walk off the job in elementary and secondary schools this fall because they feel the B.C. government is not taking negotiations seriously.
The Canadian Union of Public Employees said government negotiators arrived at the bargaining table last week without any intention of reaching a deal.
"Right now, talks have been discontinued indefinitely," said Colin Pawson, chairman of the CUPE B.C. K-12 Presidents' Council.
"We were ready, we were at the bargaining table last week... and they didn't have any sense at all of direction from the government."
Pawson said the union has suggested dates for further bargaining sessions into the first week of September in hopes of reaching a deal for its 27,000 members. "Failing that, we may have no choice and we may be forced by the government to take action, and that would be the complete withdrawal of services," he said.
Peter Cameron, the government's chief negotiator, issued a statement on Tuesday in which he described last week's talks as "exploratory."
He said both sides will have to come to the table with suggested savings to pay for wage hikes and benefit improvements under the government's co-operative gains mandate.
"I don't intend to elaborate further on matters that are better discussed at the bargaining table," Cameron said. "I expect all the parties will work hard toward an agreement, and I remain hopeful that we can avoid any significant job action."
Pawson said the union did come to the table with cost-savings ideas.
One idea, he said, was that government take a closer look at the computer system being developed by the Saanich school district for tracking student attendance, grades and other records. The district has said its system, which uses freely available opensource tools, would cost a fraction of what government intends to pay for a commercial off-the-shelf product for use by districts across the province.
"The government's willing to commit $70 [million] or $80 million for this new program and we're saying, 'Well, hang on, that money could be used to fund the wage increase - that one fund. Why aren't you listening to other school districts who have developed their own system?' "That's not what they want to do, so they're not doing that."
Support staff have been without a wage increase for four years and are seeking a raise of two per cent a year over two years. The last agreements expired more than a year ago.
"We've told the government we want to bargain," Pawson said.
"No one wants a strike. All of our members want to keep the kids in school, want to keep the schools clean, safe and inclusive of all children. But after a year of talking to the government and not having any bargaining going on, it's become frustrating for our members and they want a settlement."
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