The very last detail that was nailed down when the union representing B.C.'s civil servants accepted a new contract late last year was a "me-too" clause. That unheralded side agreement has created an additional obstacle in the current round of bargaining with the B.C. Teachers' Federation (BCTF).
The B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union accepted a five-year deal that offers 5.5-per-cent wage increases – a pact that fits within the B.C. government's bargaining framework for public-sector unions. A third of the public sector has settled so far under those terms.
But BCGEU negotiators secured an insurance policy for their members. If another major union – the nurses – lands a sweeter compensation deal, the BCGEU's 67,000 members automatically get the better package.
The "compensation bargaining comparability" agreement states that if the net total compensation awarded to the nurses in their current negotiations exceeds the net increase in the BCGEU settlement, BCGEU members will see their wages rise to equal to the highest settlement.
The teachers enter into this equation because if the BCTF is successful in negotiating a better deal, the nurses' union is likely to demand more as well. So the bargain that the teachers win has implications for those in the public sector who have yet to settle, but it also can rebound back to previous settlements. The teachers are not bargaining in a vacuum.
Last week, the BCTF scaled back its demands. It is now asking for pay hike of 9.75 per cent over four years, plus annual cost-of-living allowances. The union then complained that the province's negotiator, Peter Cameron, won't address class size, composition and staffing levels until the union accepts the same framework as the BCGEU and others who have already settled.
The teachers' union is urging members to vote for a full-scale strike in the final week of the school year – and it doesn't have enough money in its defence fund to offer strike pay. The union tells teachers it is worth it in the long run, that if it can drive up the settlement by just one percentage point, it would be worth an additional $15,000 in salary over the span of a teacher's career.
That is building expectations that teachers can expect more money if they go on strike.
There is likely room – especially with the savings generated by the job action in recent weeks – for the government to increase the size of the signing bonus it has offered teachers.
There is an argument – although it is a tougher sell – that the teachers should get more than 5.5 per cent because they were getting "zeros" in their previous contract while other public servants got wage hikes.
Even the B.C. Liberal government, which has been locked in a hostile battle with the BCTF for a dozen years, concedes that teachers, who play such a critical role in raising able young citizens, deserve a raise.
But any deal with the teachers will need to at least appear to follow the pattern for the public sector.
A wage increase of one percentage point, if it rippled across the entire public sector, would cost taxpayers a quarter of a billion dollars annually – a cost that would upend this year's balanced-on-a-knife's-edge budget.
The union may be more successful, however, if it took some guidance from other public-sector unions: Choose one non-wage issue that is dear to members and fight for that. The BCGEU wanted job security. The B.C. Nurses' Union is seeking measures to create a safer work environment.
The teachers, consistently, say they care most about class size and composition. Fighting this issue in the courts hasn't yet produced results in the classrooms. Improving classroom conditions would be costly, but it is an issue that could be managed without triggering a cascade of increased demands across the entire public sector. It offers the greatest scope for a better contract for teachers, and a better outcome for students. A negotiated settlement this month doesn't look likely but it is in reach, if both sides are willing to be creative about the terms.