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"Net zero has been the government's policy [on wage increases]since the spring of 2009," Education Minister George Abbott told The Province newspaper. "The only union that hasn't signed on to a net-zero mandate is the BCTF."

Zero has become one of the most frequent numbers tossed about in British Columbia's acrimonious teachers' strike.

Education Minister George Abbott says any salary increases must be offset by savings from concessions in other areas of an agreement. The British Columbia Teachers' Federation says the government has been selective in imposing its "net-zero" mandate, claiming it has allowed some public sectors to settle for more.

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NDP Leader Adrian Dix has also been caught up in zeros. He was former premier Glen Clark's principal secretary in 1998, when the government reached an agreement with teachers for zero increase in salaries in the first two years of a contract and 2 per cent in the third year.

But it seems that nothing is quite what it appears.

While mostly correct, Mr. Abbott was ignoring a few unions that received more than zero in 2009. Meanwhile, the teachers' federation has been clouding the debate with unrelated contract settlements, and the comparison between current negotiations and the 1998 contract is not clear.

The Public Service Employers' Council helps co-ordinate the strategic direction of labour negotiations with the province's 300,000 unionized employees represented by 182 bargaining units. So far, the government has reached agreement in the current round of negotiations with 138 units representing roughly 180,000 employees, the council says.

Nurses and paramedics in B.C. are working under contracts that do not comply with the net-zero mandate. The nurses received a 3-per-cent annual increase in a three-year contract, beginning in 2009. The paramedics also received a 3-per-cent increase under back-to-work legislation passed in 2009.

However, both contracts were completed before the government closed the tap on salary increases.

Mr. Abbott mistakenly pegged the start of the net-zero mandate at the spring of 2009. Under the rules, clearly spelled out on the website of the employers' council, the net-zero mandate applied to all public-sector employees whose collective agreements expired on or after Dec. 31, 2009.

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The nurses had a contract in April, 2009, a senior government official said. The increase in salaries was in recognition of a shortage of nurses at that time and the requirement for higher salaries to attract more people. Legislation imposing a settlement with the paramedics was passed in the fall of that year.

The teachers' federation uses the examples as ammunition in the battle over public opinion. The union includes them on a list on its website under a headline: "Net zero is not for everyone."

The union muddies the water further by including settlements with nine unions – police, firefighters and municipal employees – who do not negotiate with the provincial government. The provincial government cannot be held responsible for a settlement negotiated by municipalities.

Reports about the 1998 contract has also sparked some confusion. At first glance, it appears the former NDP government achieved a contract with some of those zeros that the current Liberal government is chasing.

However, the contract included $150-million for more teachers, librarians, counsellors and resource teachers, $22-million for early retirement incentives and a commitment to reduce the size of kindergarten and Grades 1 to 3 classes.

Mr. Dix said Monday he has talked about the 1998 contract to illustrate a difference in approach to negotiations. Money was tight at that time. The government's priority was to put more resources in the classroom. The agreement kept salary increases down while making things better in the classroom, he said. "Those are the choices you make in bargaining and those choices are not available in this [current]process," he said.

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However the NDP government had to impose the agreement through legislation. Most of the school districts, who were shunted aside during negotiation, refused to endorse the contract.

It is not clear what can be learned from the 1998 contract negotiations.

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