Despite negotiating rhetoric, a deal with teachers is still possible

Editorial, The Vancouver Sun, June 10, 2006

It's never a good idea to get too excited about chest-thumping in labour negotiations or strike votes.

In early March, for example, three weeks before the conclusion of what was arguably the most successful round of labour negotiations in British Columbia's history, one of the largest unions broke off negotiations and several others were talking under the threat of strike votes.

It's all part of the process that union negotiators go through of both squeezing as much as they can out of employers and persuading their members there was no more to be had.

That said, we still have to be a little concerned about the direction in which B.C. teachers are heading. Our concern is not the strike vote itself. We know most teachers have the best interests of their students at heart and want to be back in their classrooms in September, not pounding the pavement.

No, our concern is that teachers are being led by their union leaders to believe that with their resolve they can achieve the impossible.

After announcing the results of the strike vote on Friday, BCTF president Jinny Sims said that union negotiators are ready to work "24-7" to reach an agreement by June 30. But at the same time, she made it clear that the union considers that date to be "the government's deadline, not ours."

June 30 is the last day for the BCTF to qualify for the signing bonus of about $3,700 per member that became available as a result of the windfall revenues the government received last year because of high commodity prices. The government used that windfall to provide an incentive for most public sector employees -- covered by 55 separate agreements -- to reach a new agreement by the end of the 2005/06 fiscal year, at which point the extra money would have gone to pay down the provincial debt.

That deadline did not apply to teachers and other unions that had contracts that expired at the end of the school year.

The June 30 deadline is just as real, however, even though the money will not disappear as a result of the rules that govern government accounting.

It's just as real because if the government does not take the signing bonus off the table on that date, it will be betraying the more than 75 other union bargaining units representing 240,000 employees that have already signed under the premise that the deadline was absolute.

So once that deadline passes, the bargaining agent for the school boards will have less to offer. If September rolls around without a deal and teachers do strike, they will be on a long, hard road to diminished returns.

As long as everyone understands clearly what is at stake, however, there is still plenty of time for a fair, negotiated settlement that will allow teachers to partake in the prosperity bonus that B.C.'s other public servants have already received.

Copyright The Vancouver Sun 2006.

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