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Striking teachers and support staff stand on a picket line outside Terry Fox Secondary School in Port Coquitlam, B.C., on Thursday June 5, 2014. (DARRYL DYCK/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Striking teachers and support staff stand on a picket line outside Terry Fox Secondary School in Port Coquitlam, B.C., on Thursday June 5, 2014. (DARRYL DYCK/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

B.C. teachers have many lessons to learn from New York deal Add to ...

No matter the jurisdiction, it seems, labour negotiations involving teachers are routinely acrimonious and invariably conclude with few feeling good about the result. And a contract recently signed in New York City is yet another example of the unsettling discord that we increasingly associate with deals being hammered out between governments and unions representing K-12 teachers.

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With talks between B.C. teachers and the provincial government seemingly heading over the bargaining cliff, it’s worthwhile taking a look at the gains – and compromises – teachers in other jurisdictions are making. And while there are admittedly important differences between the education systems in Canada and the United States, the issues central to teachers are often universal.

Similarly, the problems facing governments at all levels in Canada and the U.S. are often the same, chief among them being concerns over debt.

Perhaps the first thing that catches your eye about the New York deal is the term: nine years. That sounds like groundbreaking stuff, the kind of long-term peace accord that B.C. Premier Christy Clark was hoping to achieve with teachers in her province.

That notion, of course, was laughed off by the B.C. Teachers’ Federation, which said it would never ink a deal of that length unless it was exceptionally lucrative. So the government abandoned that idea and is now trying to get something done in the five- to six-year range.

But the length of the New York pact is deceiving, as a good chunk of it is retroactive. Teachers there have been operating without a contract for more than four years, so debilitating and rancorous have relations between the city and the union been. The new deal includes an 18-per-cent pay raise, which sounds okay until you examine it more closely.

The first two years of the pact, for instance, cover the years 2009 and 2010. The city was effectively obligated to give the teachers raises of 4 per cent for each of those years because of agreements it had concluded at the time with other municipal unions. Teachers then get 10 per cent spread over the next seven years, an average of 1.4 per cent annually. There is, notably, no cost-of-living provision, which means that inflation could effectively negate the teachers’ yearly raise, in a city in which it is far more expensive to live than Vancouver.

And there is another catch: The 8-per-cent retroactive off the top will be paid out between 2019 and 2021 – after the new contract has expired.

Meaning, some of those teachers eligible for the money (they had to have been working during those years in which there was no contract between the city and the teachers union) might be dead before they see a penny of it. Then again, some unforeseen financial calamity could force the city to put off the payment for even longer than that.

Meantime, the starting salary for a teacher in New York will rise to $56,709 by the end of the new deal, from $45,530 now. In B.C., the starting salary is $49,410, excluding benefits, according to the Ministry of Education.

The New York teachers’ union had to make some other fairly major concessions to get a deal. For instance, it had to agree to find $1.3-billion in health-care cost reductions. Many are skeptical the union will be able to do this through finding efficiencies in the system and by encouraging teachers to live healthier lives. Any shortfall in that reduction target will likely have to come out of teachers’ pockets.

The union also had to give the city power to more easily fire teachers deemed poor performers, authority the B.C. government would love to have, too, but is unlikely to get. New York teachers did win some gains in terms of flexibility in the classroom, but didn’t get any substantial movement on class size and composition language.

Of course, Vancouver isn’t New York and vice versa, but it’s still instructive to see what teachers elsewhere are settling for these days. In an era of tepid economic growth, governments are under growing pressure to contain public-sector costs, the majority of which are made up of wages and benefits.

Increasingly, the public – most of whom work in the private sector where they don’t have access to lucrative pension plans and guaranteed job security – is becoming resentful of the deals being reached by government workers. And that enmity toward the public sector isn’t likely to abate any time soon.

New York teachers were hardly thrilled with their new contract. But in the end, they realized it was the best they were going to get. Pretty soon, teachers in B.C. may reach the same conclusion.

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