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gary mason

As of this week, negotiators for the BC Teachers' Federation were still pondering whether to table opening salary numbers when talks with the province resume Tuesday. The holdup, it seems, is a debate over whether more time is needed to determine what the government might realistically accept in the end.

Allow me to help: Not much.

Wages are just one point of disagreement between the two parties in a labour dispute that will almost certainly end with the province's 41,000 teachers once again going on strike or getting locked out until legislation is passed forcing them back to work.

Digging into the positions of the two camps is enough to induce a rash. The chasm between them is formidable and growing. Their foundational belief systems are built on widely divergent philosophies. And critical to the dysfunction in which this relationship is imbued is this problem: You can't expect two groups to find common ground when they can't agree on the metrics that underlie their differences.

Let's take salaries.

The union complains that B.C. teachers are falling behind their counterparts in other provinces in terms of salaries. But teacher wage tables in Canada are complex and ripe for cherry picking. Even in B.C. there is a maze of grids that consider elements such as performance, education and other factors. Nonetheless, the BCTF insists B.C. teachers are now behind Alberta, Ontario, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and New Brunswick.

Yet Statistics Canada figures for 2010-11 have been interpreted by some, including the provincial government, as showing B.C. teachers' salaries are the second-highest among the provinces, earning an average of $80,582, excluding benefits and an enviable pension fund.

Nonetheless, wages have become a hill to die on for the BCTF. Union representatives believe they can't face their members unless they come away with a healthy wage increase that at least puts them on par with where they say Manitoba and Saskatchewan are now. (Saskatchewan teachers are in the midst of contract negotiations as we speak and two months ago rejected a 5.5-per-cent wage increase over four years).

To get where they need to be, this contract for the BCTF will have to include a cost-of-living number, somewhere between 1 and 1.5 per cent, plus a market adjustment on top of that, probably 3 per cent, according to union sources. The BCTF may open with a number larger than this, but that is ultimately where they want to be. So, even factoring in a 1-per-cent cost-of-living number, that amounts to a 20-per-cent raise over the life of a five-year agreement.

While that may represent fairness in the eyes of the teachers and their union, it represents fantasyland in the eyes of the government and its negotiators.

One of the problems here is that the teachers, or at least the union that represents them, don't feel they should be treated the same as other public-sector employees. The government recently concluded agreements with four other public-sector unions for wage increases that averaged 5.5 per cent over five years, with the opportunity to make a bit more if the provincial economy exceeds expectations.

Can you imagine how they would feel if the government turned around and gave the teachers 20 per cent? There would be a revolt. It would create horrible ill will, not just toward the government but toward teachers as well. The province has to treat its employees equitably. Neither can it afford to incite an inflationary public-sector wage spiral by signing a reckless contract with one group of employees.

I can sympathize with teachers who believe they are falling further and further behind their colleagues in the rest of the country. But again, it's fair to ask just how much they're really suffering. Provincial data show that between 2001-02 and 2012-13, total compensation for teachers increased by 45.5 per cent to $88,695 from $60,695 (including benefits and employee pension contributions). Over that same period, B.C.'s inflation rate rose by 19.1 per cent.

Average total compensation for a teacher with a master's degree and 10 years' experience is $100,939. And that, we don't need to remind anyone, includes a pension plan that is becoming extinct in the private sector – not to mention summers off. Try convincing the public that compensation figure should be more than $120,000 in five years' time. Tough sell.

Wages are just one area in which the province and the teachers' union disagree. But in a time when the provincial economy remains fragile, the last thing the province can be doing is signing labour agreements it can't afford and which discriminate against other government employees.

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