When the B.C. government offered this week to back off its pursuit of a 10-year labour deal with the province's teachers and also throw in a signing bonus in a bid to break the log jam at the bargaining table, there was a sense it was not quite as simple as that. The government had offered the proverbial carrot – but was a stick yet to come?
Turns out, there was.
In an effort to ramp up pressure on the B.C. Teachers' Federation, the province informed the union on Friday that, as of May 26, it will start clawing back the salaries of teachers by 5 per cent. This, the rationale goes, because those teachers are not performing all the duties for which they are paid. Under Phase 1 of the union's job action plan, teachers have, among other things, stopped participating in administrative meetings and supervising students outside the classroom.
If the union moves to Phase 2 of its stratagem – rotating strikes – then the government will reduce salaries by 10 per cent. It also told the union it is cancelling the three administrative days high school teachers get after the last day of exams. Elementary school teachers get only one paid "clean up" day, which they are also going to lose unless a settlement is reached by the end of the school year. Both groups, of course, would also lose the pay that goes with those days.
These pay cuts will carry over if no deal is reached by June 30 and the union continues its job action in the next school year.
If this sounds like a government exercising its bargaining muscle, it is. Clearly, the plan is to go over the union's head and speak directly to teachers. Its message is unmistakable: Tell your union to smarten up and get a deal done or we're going to start taking money out of your wallet. Oh, and that $1,200 signing bonus we're offering you? You'll also lose that unless a deal is reached by the end of June.
Now we wait to see how this goes over with the province's 30,000-plus teachers. Undoubtedly, some will compare this to the strong-arm tactics of a dictatorship. Those who hold more sanguine views about the universe, and labour negotiations in general, will see this tactic as inevitable. (And most of it idle threats). And many will not like the idea of parting with hard-earned cash and urge the union to sign the deal that is on the table; in other words, take the money and run.
The government is offering wage increases of 0, 1, 1.5, 1.5 and 1.5 per cent over five years. For the year the teachers have just worked without a contract, the government is proposing any wage increase would have to come from co-operative gains – meaning, the money to pay for the salary hike would have to be found from savings in the system. To which I say: Good luck with that. Districts are already laying off teachers to meet budgets. So I think the teachers are destined to settle for zero for this past year.
When I asked Peter Cameron, the government's lead negotiator, if the government was willing to budge off its wage offer, he indicated there was room to "negotiate around" the numbers somewhat. He said other public sector unions that have settled with the government have been able to do it without breaking the treasury. It takes innovative thinking, he suggested. More likely, it takes the skills of a seasoned mediator such as Vince Ready.
But first, the union is going to have to give up on its wage demand of 16 per cent over four years. That is never going to happen, and teachers need to accept that now. And there will be no "splitting the difference" between what the government is offering and what the BCTF wants. Any movement by the government off its offer is likely to be minuscule.
And then there are the issues of class size and composition. The government is appealing a B.C. Supreme Court decision last year that ordered it to reinstate class size and composition numbers that existed in the contract before 2001. The government is appealing that order, but the case will not be heard until the fall. How the two sides get a contract done while that major issue likely remains unresolved until after the government's appeal is beyond me.
Regardless, the government has upped the stakes in this dispute. It's the union's turn to respond.