British Columbia's teachers want better class-size controls and wage increases in their next contract, which could put them at odds with a government that has already said it has no funds for public-sector raises.
The current contract with the B.C. Teachers' Federation expires June 30, and theirs is the first major public-sector bargaining to be undertaken by the government of new B.C. Premier Christy Clark, whose tenure as Liberal education minister almost a decade ago saw tense relations with the teachers' union.
The 41,000-member union said Monday that B.C. has dropped to eighth in Canada when it comes to teachers' salaries.
The government has previously said it has no money to offer the teachers in the new contract.
Federation president Susan Lambert said Monday the union has yet to calculate its wage demands, but acknowledged the teachers and government are "some distance apart."
"We believe teachers deserve salaries commensurate with teachers in other provinces," she said at a press conference at the federation's annual meeting in Victoria.
She highlighted wage differences between teachers in B.C. and Alberta as examples of how far B.C. teachers have fallen behind.
"A beginning teacher working in Golden, B.C., right now, right on the B.C.-Alberta border, makes almost $10,000 less than a beginning teacher in Banff, Alta.," Ms. Lambert said. "An experienced teacher in Banff earns more than $16,000 a year more than a teacher with the same credentials in Golden."
She said Alberta teachers will receive a negotiated 4.3-per-cent wage increase in September.
Ms. Lambert said almost 97 per cent of teachers believe improvements to class size and composition are also key issues for their next contract.
"What we have now is tens of thousands of overcrowded classrooms," she said. "The system needs attention. The end result is we want smaller classes with more resources for students with special needs."
Ms. Lambert said she knows of a teacher with a split Grade 6/7 classroom of 30 students where up to 13 of the students are classified with "individual needs."
She said that since 2001, when the B.C. Liberals were first elected, teaching jobs have dropped by 3,000.
Ms. Lambert said there were 2,595 new students in the province last year, but the number of full-time teaching jobs declined by 283.
Education Minister George Abbott said the contract talks could pose difficulties, but the government will not move off its mandate of no wage increases.
He said the province is still recovering from a recession and pay increases are not on the table for any public-sector contracts. Mr. Abbott said the government is open to including contract-reopening clauses if the economy rebounds.
"Our government will be abiding by the net-zero mandate," Mr. Abbott said. "I appreciate that will make perhaps the discussion with the teachers' federation a challenging one, but I think there are a great many issues that we can discuss in relation to both the student performance in the B.C. education system and teacher satisfaction with the B.C. education system."
Labour negotiations have traditionally been acrimonious between the federation and government, with New Democrat, Liberal and Social Credit governments resorting to legislation to end disputes.
The B.C. Liberals passed legislation shortly after their election in 2001 that made public education an essential service and limited the level of job action teachers could take.
In June, 2006, teachers accepted the five-year contract that included wage and benefit increases that amounted to about 16 per cent and bonuses worth up to $4,700 each.