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Updated: BCTF rejects premier's call to suspend school strike

Premier Christy Clark today urged the B.C. Teachers Federation to suspend its strike to allow public school classes to open while negotiations continue.

And she insisted the union get "realistic" and move towards the public sector pattern on wage increases so the two sides can hammer out a deal to improve class support for special needs, which she called the biggest issue facing the education system.

"There are no easy fixes and no shortcuts to achieving long-term labour peace for kids," Clark said in a news conference Wednesday afternoon.

BCTF president Jim Iker ruled out a pause in the strike along the lines of the two-week truce the province proposed last week and is still offering.

"The government remains entrenched and unwilling to be flexible," he told reporters. "We're not suspending any strike right now."

The premier had been criticized in recent days for keeping a low profile – apart from a few posts on Twitter and Facebook – as the teachers strike rolled into September without a deal.

"This is going to be settled at the negotiating table by negotiators," Clark said. "There's no magic wand, there's no one who can walk in and say 'Guess what? I've come up with some simple, easy way that's magically going to solve this.'"

The premier said the union's position is unreasonably high and made repeated references to BCTF demands for massage therapy benefits – a request that was dropped in recent weeks – and a $5,000 signing bonus that would cost the province more than $150 million.

Clark gave no indication of how long the government is prepared to let the strike continue or if classes might reopen under an essential services designation on the basis of damage to students' education.

Fassbender has vowed the government won't legislate the teachers back to work this time.

The strike began with rotating walkouts in the spring and turned into a complete school shutdown in mid-June.

There were virtually no negotiations through the summer until a last-minute effort at exploratory talks led by mediator Vince Ready began last week.

Ready walked out on Saturday, declaring an impasse with the two sides too far apart for mediation to be productive.

Clark said the eventual deal with teachers must be fair – giving them a deserved raise but also respecting that other unionized workers have accepted the government's economic mandate offer on wages.

"The teachers union needs to come to the table with a proposal that is realistic," Clark told reporters. "For heaven's sake, 150,000 other public sector employees who work just as hard have settled for far less. They didn't get a $5,000 signing bonus. They didn't get unlimited massage. They didn't get an extra day off every year."

In fact, the massage demand, when it was still on the table, was for a maximum of $3,000 per year on a doctor's prescription.

Iker insisted the BCTF is close to the government on wages and made significant concessions in recent weeks.

The government offer is seven per cent over six years, while the union wants eight per cent over five years.

"We could have got a deal this past weekend if government was willing to move."

Iker said the signing bonus demand is "negotiable" and reiterated his call for Clark to meet him directly.

Iker repeatedly criticized the government for committing money to priorities other than education, including the new B.C. Place stadium roof, a payout to a California utility to settle lawsuits against BC Hydro, and now the $40-a-day payments to parents.

He estimated the extra money needed to fund the BCTF demands represents $3 per day per student.

"They have $40 a day right now to keep kids out of school. It's about choices."

But the province says the combined wages and benefits demand is still nearly twice what other public sector unions have accepted.

Overhanging the talks is the government's pending appeal of the latest court ruling on class size and composition, slated to be heard in mid-October.

Iker again called on the government to drop its insistence on a clause that would let it "nullify" another ruling in favour of teachers.

Clark was asked if it's possible to overcome the animosity stemming from the stripping of the teachers' contract in 2002 when she was education minister.

"I think we can and I think we have to," she said. "We all have to get past the emotion here."

The province has offered a $75-million Learning Improvement Fund to help address special needs but the union wants much more for special needs and to settle grievances.

Clark said the government's offer adds up to $375 million to improve class composition with more teachers and CUPE support staff.

VIDEO: BCTF president Jim Iker responds to Premier Christy Clark, government

FULL VIDEO: BCTF responds to Premier's statement

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