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Strike set for Monday

Eighty-seven per cent of B.C. teachers voted in favour of action

New Westminster teachers will join their counterparts across the province Monday for a full-scale teachers' strike.

Eighty-seven per cent of B.C. teachers have voted yes to escalate the current job action. Of 32,209 ballots cast, 27,946 voted in favour. The strike will last three days.

"It's a very strong statement by teachers that they are angry, really infuriated about Bill 22, the attempt to strip the contract, the attempt to continue to strip class size and composition," said New Westminster Teachers' Union president Grant Osborne. "Bill 22 is a very clear sign of the government's disrespect of teachers and public education, and they've stated that very loudly and in large number."

The Labour Relations Board is allowing the union to stage a full walkout one day per week, following the initial three-day strike. The Liberal government's legislation - Bill 22, now under debate in the legislature - will make any strike by teachers illegal.

"Most people are characterizing the bill as a 'measured, thoughtful, balanced and constructive' approach to a dispute that has been going on for almost a year with little chance of a resolution," Education Minister George Abbott said in a press release. "If you look at the history of the relationship between the teachers' union and the government in this province, you'll soon realize that in almost 20 years of provincewide bargaining, the BCTF has only successfully concluded one negotiated agreement. You will also realize that Bill 22 is a measured and appropriate response to the current situation.

"I am disappointed by the initial comments coming from the teachers' union. In the most frustrating example - the union has been asking for mediation. Now, they are rejecting the idea simply because the mediator is required to strike a genuine balance in the discussions by looking at what both parties want so we can put the needs of students first."

Osborne said the mediator is an appointed mediator, not one that has been agreed to by both parties.

"The terms of reference for the mediator are extremely narrow and guided by the government's attempt to strip elements of our collective agreement," said Osborne. "Also what little protections there were under Bill 33 for class size and composition have also evaporated through Bill 22."

Osborne called Bill 22 "a significant step back" in resolving the year-long contract dispute.

"I think what we've seen shown by the government is a lack of respect for teachers and a lack of respect for public education," he said. "The lack of respect for teaching has been shown in how they govern themselves at the bargaining table, and the lack of respect for public education has been shown in the chronic underfunding. Three-and-a-half billion dollars over 10 years has been taken out of education by this government over 10 years."

Teachers feel they deserve a salary increase (15 per cent over three years), but they are also concerned about a "gutting" of the basic tenets of their contract, including impacts on seniority, post-andfill language, professional development, professional autonomy and class size and composition, Osborne said.

Lord Tweedsmuir Elementary parent Don Ellam supports the teachers' strike.

"I'm very pleased," he said. "I think it's the right thing to do, and I'm hopeful that it will bring about a speedier resolution if the government sees that the teachers are serious.

"It's unfortunate that children will be out of school for three days, but we all have to do our part," said Ellam.