This is the Life: Same mess, different day for B.C. teacher-government negotiations

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“Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into!” It isn’t difficult to envision Premier Christy Clark and BC Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) president Jim Iker pointing fingers at each other, modern Oliver and Hardy in a vaudeville act that long ago wore thin. Who out there, save those who have a direct connection to one side or the other, can say they aren’t royally fed up with this dispute?

I’ve written in past government-teacher negotiations that the dysfunctional relationship seems to work for both sides. Nothing seems to have changed over this two-decade battle. The BC Liberals have a hearty dislike for teachers and their union. Teachers loathe this same government that arbitrarily and illegally (as the courts have found) tore up a contract back in what now seems like a kinder and gentler time. And parents and kids are caught in the middle, the former not-quite-innocent bystanders, considering a lot of them must have voted for Premier Christy, the one-time teacher-bashing education minister who now sends her kids to private schools.

We don’t know exactly what is going on inside the minds of each side, but there are a couple of assumptions we can take to the bank. One is that the government is measuring public sentiment and does not feel pressure to get a deal done. The other is that with the school year ending early, Clark and crew can now start calculating their savings. School strikes suck for parents because they add costs and inconvenience as they scramble to find alternate child care or day programs. But they are a joy to bean counters, who see the flow of salary and benefit expenses stemmed.

When Clark and Education Minister Peter Fassbender (whose personality seems to lean heavier on the Fass in his name and less on the bender) spoke late last week about their optimism that a contract agreement could be reached on the weekend, cynics among us — and our numbers most certainly are growing by the day — couldn’t help but wonder just where they thought optimism was warranted. It turns out that it was just another ploy to make the other side look worse (if that’s even possible).

Teachers, according to a report in the Tyee online newspaper, came back to the bargaining table with a reduced salary demand, but only after making the government negotiators wait for 12 hours. The new salary demand was for an eight per cent increase over five years. The BC Public School Employers’ Association, the phony-baloney shill intended to distance the government from its responsibilities, countered, a mere 48 hours later, with a seven per cent offer. Apparently they spent two days rejigging sick time calculations so they could actually decrease their previous 7.25 per cent offer. Both offers were six-year deals.

It seems like the two sides are close enough, but unspoken is the fact that teachers still want to negotiate class size and composition, which adds directly to their workload, and also takes a huge whack of money to fund. When the Liberals tore up a previous contract and legislated a new one, class size and composition were removed. Court after court has ruled on the teachers’ side, saying they have a right to have a say in how large and complex their class loads are. And the government has kept appealing, and continues to do so, spending your money and mine on a losing battle that wins them time. What they plan to do with that time is anyone’s guess.

I don’t think there is any doubt that teachers have come down a long way in their salary demands, but the unknowns about class size and composition still mean that any negotiated settlement is going to cost taxpayers a lot.

If this, or any government, is truly determined to rein in public sector wages, it might look at creating an equitable system that works from top to bottom. It’s hard to tell front-line employees that they aren’t getting the increases they want when they show a great willingness to bump up compensation for deputy ministers and assistants, and use patronage appointments to reward friends of the governing party.

Why not bring in legislation that restricts each and every person in the public sector to a cost of living increase only? No more salary negotiations or increases beyond that for, say, 10 years? Make it include MLAs and administrators and crown corporations. No more performance bonuses, no more increases to perks and benefits. I could live with that and I suspect a lot of taxpayers could. Not that it solves the key to this whole mess, the arbitrary removal of class size and compensation from these current negotiations. Eventually, the government is going to have to accede to the courts. And it’s going to cost you and I a lot of money.

Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.