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Contract talks suspended

One last chance has passed for B.C.'s public-school teachers and their employers to avoid rotating strikes across the province Monday, with both sides stepping away from the bargaining table to reassess their positions.

Tensions between the two sides mushroomed this week, as teachers announced job action, while the government imposed a partial lockout, limiting teacher's time in schools and warning of full-scale lockouts at the end of June.

Negotiators for the BC Teachers' Federation and the BC Public School Employers' Association announced Friday that they agreed to put off talks for the day.

Jim Iker, president of the teachers' union, said the rotating strikes will begin Monday, while each side takes some time to re-eveluate their positions.

"We will keep in touch daily, and again I ask them to show some sign that they are willing to make some movement, and I have always stated that we are willing to make some movement," Iker said in an interview. "But this is not about the BCTF making movement. Government has to show some will."

Peter Cameron, the employers' chief negotiator, said they were still "in caucus" working things out, and disputed the term called off in reference to Friday's suspension of negotiations.

"We've said to the BCTF it's urgent that we get on with real bargaining, but it's impossible while (the union is) there asking for several times what anybody else got in the public sector," he said in an interview on Vancouver radio station CKNW.

Cameron said a settlement is urgent, but added that was impossible given the union's demands.

The government is offering a 7.25 per cent wage increase over six years, while the province has said the teachers want 15.9 per cent over four years.

Cameron said they didn't want to insult teachers, so the association came with an offer similar to what other public sector unions have settled for, but the union is still making "extreme" requests.

"They've basically sat there with a position that is completely outrageous. You know 21.5 per cent over four years is not remotely similar to the pattern," he said of the wage and benefit package asked for by the union.

The BCTF also wants significant changes to reduce class size, change class composition rules, and increase the number of specialists in place to work with students.

Iker said a letter sent to the union by the employer this week, detailing pay reductions and lockout specifics, gave teachers mixed messages about participating in activities, like track-and-field events.

"They say voluntary activities can continue, so in one answer they have 'it can continue,' but in another answer it says we can't be on the work site, so in our stage two action with rotating strikes in Vancouver, that track-and-field event would occur,"he said.

Iker said the employer has not sent the union another letter, explaining the partial lockout.

The union's rotating strikes are expected to begin Monday and will last four days, with every school in B.C. closed for one of those days.

The employers' association has announced a partial lockout, including a 10 per cent pay cut if teachers follow through with their plans to walk off the job.

The lockout will also restrict the amount of time teachers will be permitted to be at work and, if a deal isn't reached by the end of June, force high school teachers to stay home for three days and elementary teachers to be off work for one day.

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