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British Columbia Premier Christy Clark during a news conference in Vancouver, Oct. 17, 2012. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

British Columbia Premier Christy Clark during a news conference in Vancouver, Oct. 17, 2012.

(John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

education

Too many unknowns for 10-year deal with B.C. teachers Add to ...

It’s hard to argue with Premier Christy Clark’s motivation for wanting to sign a 10-year accord with the province’s K-12 teachers. A decade of labour peace with educators and their ever-combative union would be a blessing. Parents and students would unquestionably be the big winners in such a deal.

But as well-meaning as the idea is, it is equally far-fetched. I hate to temper the Premier’s enthusiasm for the proposal with cold logic, but I must. A 10-year labour agreement with the teachers will never happen because it is neither in the teachers’ nor the government’s long-term interests.

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Let’s consider just one aspect of such a pact that could come back to haunt the government: wage increases. How any government could predict what it might be able to pay its workers 10 years down the road is just one problem with this plan. But let’s say, for the sake of argument, the government decided to tie the wage increases to inflation with other fiscal benchmarks around measures such as GDP perhaps triggering additional monies.

So, let’s agree the negotiated funding formula means annual increases of between 1 and 3 per cent over the life of the contract. So far, maybe so good. But then in year three of the deal, the bottom falls out of commodity markets. The price of natural gas plummets, among other things. (And that’s not implausible at all.) The provincial treasury takes a nasty hit.

Also consider that we’re still feeling the aftershocks of the financial crisis. No one yet knows how events in Europe will ultimately shake down and affect the rest of the world. There are plenty of unknowns. Point being, the financial position of the B.C. government could change radically in a year, let alone 10.

Suddenly, it is on the hook for wage increases to teachers that it cannot afford but is obligated to pay. It is in fiscal handcuffs. What happens to all of the other public-sector workers? What is the government going to have to say to them? Sorry, but the state of our finances prevents us from being able to offer you any wage increase.

You know what those unions are going to say: But you gave the teachers a raise. And you pretty much guaranteed them one for the next seven years. How is that fair?

It would not be.

Similarly, although not as likely, the teachers could sign a contract that gives them raises tied to inflation while other unions are signing contracts with wage increases in excess of that because, suddenly, the government finds itself awash in money. As I say, not as probable, but not impossible either. Would the teachers take that chance? Beyond that, who knows what issues the teachers might need addressed three, four, even five years out from when such a contract was approved. Their priorities almost certainly will shift over the course of a 10-year deal. What opportunities would there be to reopen such a deal to address new concerns? And if you could reopen the contract, doesn’t that defeat the purpose of it?

When I put these issues to the Premier this week, she acknowledged there are legitimate questions about the impact of such a deal elsewhere in the public service. But she said the government’s investment in kids and education is the single most important one it makes in its citizens.

“Yes, it’s difficult to do and it’s not something we’ve ever done before, but I think it’s a risk we have to think about taking given the importance of what we’re talking about,” she said.

Ms. Clark said there are different ways of mapping out agreements that would allow some flexibility to respond to unexpected scenarios. She admitted, however, that she has no idea how such a deal would ultimately be structured.

“But I would say that I think negotiating a teachers’ agreement is different than negotiating any other agreement out there,” she said.

If, by that statement, she is insinuating that teachers enjoy some kind of special status among equals, I think doctors and nurses, among others, might have something to say about that. In fact, I’m sure every other public-sector union would, too.

Ms. Clark is right that, in the past, the province was able to sign a five-year deal with teachers and that her plan would simply double that. But doubling it at least triples the complications.

Often, a government doesn’t negotiate labour peace as much as it buys it. A 10-year labour agreement with B.C. teachers could be achieved, but it would likely be horribly expensive – far too costly, in fact, for any sane government even to consider.

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