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gary mason

As bargaining resumes this week between the provincial government and the B.C. Teachers' Federation, the subject of wages is certain to come up.

So is the view the union holds that the government has been disseminating information that is either false or misleading in a bid to bolster its cause. The BCTF is particularly upset with media reports that circulated last week quoting a 2010-11 Statistics Canada report purporting to claim the mean B.C. teacher salary was $80,582, making it the second highest among Canadian provinces.

Except, the Statscan survey actually referenced an average "per educator" figure – one that included wages paid to administrators such as principals and vice-principals who make more than teachers and can skew averages. It was a distinction that went unnoticed by most, including myself (an oversight I regret). In fact, the standard teacher salary in B.C. for 2012-13, with allowances, was more like $71,485 – a not-insignificant difference.

While teachers and their union often talk about class size and composition being the issues closest to their heart, the size of their paycheques isn't far behind. A BCTF strike vote which began Tuesday and will be made public later this week was, according to union officials, incited by the government's apparent unwillingness to budge on several matters at the bargaining table, including wages.

The BCTF is adamant the government close what the union insists is a yawning gap between what teachers here make and what their counterparts elsewhere in the country are pulling in. As for how wide that spread really is, well, let the debate begin. The government has its ideas of what it is (especially when you factor in pension and other benefits), while the union possesses its own view of the world.

At some point, the two sides are going to have to agree to third-party intervention to come up with an unassailable set of facts and figures from which to bargain. For now, both groups are using numbers that best suit their purposes, that make the other look either greedy or miserly.

The government, for instance, pegs total annual compensation for teachers at nearly $89,000; a number that includes $70,624 for salary and more than $18,000 for benefits. If you have a master's degree with 10 years' experience, that aggregate figure is more than $100,000, according to the Ministry of Education.

The union can produce a chart that ranks the equivalent of B.C.'s category 5 teachers among Canadian provinces and territories for 2013-14. A category 5 teacher has an undergraduate degree and at least one year of teacher training and faces a 10-step grid to reach the top level. A category 5 in Vancouver, for instance, purportedly makes $74,353, while an equal in Edmonton makes $95,354 and in Winnipeg, $84,681. That same Vancouver teacher, according to the union, will make nearly $1,000 less than a counterpart in New Brunswick and more $15,000 less than a contemporary in Toronto.

The union also points to the aforementioned Statscan survey to bolster its claims that the province is woefully underfunding education. For instance, one graph shows that B.C. is last in the country in educator remuneration per student. Another, the union says, shows that the average increase in remuneration of all "teachers" in Canada from 2007-11 was 4.08 per cent, yet only 2.5 per cent in B.C. But again, these two examples are interesting for how they are being used. It tells you everything you need to know about the aggressive and sometimes hypocritical information campaign being waged by both sides in this dispute.

For instance, the union didn't like the media citing the Statscan report on educator salaries because it included administrators in their averages, which made it look like teachers here made more than they did. However, the BCTF doesn't mind using the same survey's remuneration figures when it comes to student funding – even though the "per educator" numbers it uses includes the same administrator salaries it objected to being used for other reasons.

Also, the other graph to which it refers does not demonstrate the average increase in remuneration of all "teachers" in Canada – as the union said – but rather all educators, including administrators. But because it supports the BCTF's overarching wage narrative, the union doesn't mind doing exactly what it accused the government of doing with the salary figure: misrepresenting what the survey actually says.

This may seem like a small issue but it's not. It points to two things: how high the stakes are and the extent to which both sides are desperate to win the public-relations battle. It also illustrates the vital need for an impartial body to discern truth from spin.

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