Teachers' union reaching too far

Victoria Times-Colonist Editorial, May 20, 2006, Page A10

Students should hope the latest demands from the B.C. Teachers' Federation are just part of the usual contract posturing.

Because if teachers are serious about holding out for higher wage increases than other public sector workers, some sort of school strike is likely for the fall.

The union has just announced plans for an early June strike vote. The timing isn't surprising. Their contract expires June 30 and the pressure is on to reach a deal before then. That would allow members to receive the $3,700-per-person signing bonus available if agreements are reached before their expiry date.

But the rhetoric is alarming, even given the expected posturing by both sides.

The B.C. Public School Employers' Association has followed mediator Vince Ready's recommendation and tabled what it calls "a serious opening offer." The proposal would provide wage increases of eight per cent over four years, plus the signing bonus if an agreement is reached by the end of June.

It's a reasonable proposal for this stage of the talks, serious but with enough room for the employer to improve the offer during bargaining.

BCTF head Jinny Sims doesn't think so. The union wants 24 per cent over three years, plus contract changes that would add significantly to costs.

But every other public sector union has reached agreements that provide increases worth about 11 per cent over four years, plus the signing bonus.

The union claims a need to increase wages to keep up with Alberta and Ontario and warns of a teacher shortage.

But aside from some smaller communities and specialized instructional areas, there is no teacher shortage at current wage levels. In many areas teachers wait years on sub lists before finding permanent work.

There's a danger of miscalculation in this dispute. Teachers were buoyed last fall when the public stayed solidly on their side during a two-week illegal strike. (And the government was surprised and chastened.)

But that was in large part because the teachers emphasized their battle for smaller classes and more support for special needs students.

They won. The government admitted its error in eliminating class size limits and reintroduced them.

That was the right decision for education.

And it was also an astute bargaining move. Now if the BCTF launches job action the conflict will be over wages, not educational quality.

And public support, critical in educational labour disputes, will not be there.

Both sides know roughly where the deal is. It would be destructive folly for the union to launch a fight it can't win.

Copyright Victoria Times-Colonist 2006.