After months of fruitless bargaining, the British Columbia Teachers' Federation on Tuesday announced wage proposals it characterized as an effort to kick-start negotiations with its employer.
But with the proposal featuring what amounts to a 15-per-cent increase over a three-year contract, it does not bridge the divide between the union and a provincial government that's vowed to stick to a net-zero mandate for public-sector employees.
"We have signed dozens of agreements based on net zero and we won't be deviating from it because the [BCTF]doesn't believe they should be subject to it," B.C. Education Minister George Abbott said on a conference call with reporters in response to the union's announcement.
Although the proposal is more reasonable than what had been previously discussed, it amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars in additional costs and won't fly in a tough economic climate, he added.
"In the absence of the teachers' federation somehow bringing themselves around to recognizing the imperative – not just the wisdom, but the imperative of net zero – I remain pessimistic about our opportunities for a collaborative solution."
The province, citing a grim economic climate, adopted a net-zero mandate in 2009. It remains in effect, albeit with government saying it's open to a "co-operative gains" approach that would provide pay increases by finding savings in other areas.
BCTF president Susan Lambert unveiled the package at a news conference Tuesday, saying the proposal, including improvements to wages and benefits, would amount to about $300-million a year – significantly less than the $2-billion that has been cited by the B.C. Public School Employers Association, the provincial bargaining agent, as the amount that would be required to pay for all of the union's proposals.
The net-zero mandate won't fly, Ms. Lambert insisted, saying it amounts to a wage cut for teachers who are losing ground to counterparts in other provinces.
"I urge government and our employer to look at the large and growing gap between the salaries of B.C. teachers and their counterparts in the rest of Canada. If they do, they'll understand why our members overwhelmingly reject a net-zero mandate, which in our case has become a sub-zero mandate."
A cost-of-living allowance boost of 3 per cent in the first year amounts to a wage freeze and "we're willing to accept a wage freeze in the first year of this collective agreement," she said.
Canada's Consumer Price Index rose by 2.8 per cent in 2011.
Ms. Lambert said the BCTF has made concessions, including dropping a proposal for wage minimums for on-call teachers – a provision aimed at ensuring a minimum annual salary for young or beginning teachers who can spend years on-call before landing a full-time job.
That proposal, which had been calculated to cost $60-million a year, has been dropped, Ms. Lambert said, along with other provisions relating to professional and personal leaves.
A proposal that would have provided bereavement leave for deaths of close friends was dropped in early rounds of bargaining, a BCTF representative said at the news conference.
Teachers have been engaged in job action since classes resumed in September. There is a fractious history between the province and the teachers' union. The two sides last reached a negotiated contract in 2006, the first time since provincewide bargaining was introduced in 1994.
That five-year contract featured a 16-per-cent wage increase and a signing bonus.
The BCTF argues that its members' salaries have fallen behind their counterparts in other provinces and that B.C. has systematically underfunded education for more than a decade.
Asked whether the proposal means the province is closer to legislating teachers back to work, Mr. Abbott said he is concerned about the prospect of students and parents going through the year without a report card, and about the work load for non-teaching staff who are picking up some of teachers' duties as a result of job action. But he made no commitment on a time frame.