Finance Minister Mike de Jong says the wage demands of B.C.'s public-school teachers are unfair to the 100,000 public-sector workers who have signed contracts under the government's bargaining mandate. But a majority of B.C.'s public-sector unions fired back, saying they are not standing in the way of a settlement to the teachers' strike.
Contract talks with the teachers are at an impasse, and Mr. de Jong told reporters on Tuesday that the union is seeking wages and benefits that would cost at least $166-million more each year than the pattern of settlements with B.C.'s other public-sector unions. He warned that a settlement on the BCTF's terms would have a cascading effect that would "at least double" the price tag across the broader public sector.
For months, the government has sought to isolate the B.C. Teachers' Federation from other public-sector labour unions, and Mr. de Jong played that hand again on Tuesday when he said it would not be fair to those unions to give the BCTF more.
(Connect with our B.C. teachers' strike live blog for the latest updates on the strike.)
"To just break the bank and let it all ride for the sake of one group ignores the risk that represents to taxpayers and also ignores the principle of fairness to other groups," the Finance Minister said.
But Jim Sinclair, president of the B.C. Federation of Labour, said that's not the case. "I think we have to stick to the facts," he said in an interview. "There is no obligation on the part of the government to give more money to anyone else if they give more to the teachers."
Mr. Sinclair noted that Peter Cameron, the government's lead negotiator in this dispute, recently approved a contract with community social-service workers that is higher than the government's standard settlement pattern – those workers will receive an 11.5-per-cent wage increase over the term of their contract. Government officials say that variation reflects both a labour-market adjustment and the fact that workers in this sector are among the lowest-paid in the public service. However, it is an example of how the government does make exceptions in individual contracts.
Mr. Cameron said in an interview the teachers' contract will influence other sets of negotiations, including ongoing talks with the BC Nurses' Union.
"Every settlement in the public sector influences every other settlement," Mr. Cameron said.
Some unions have signed contracts with the B.C. government that include a "me-too" clause that ensures that if a comparable union gets a better deal, their members will see the same improvements. Those agreements rarely span different sectors, such as education and health, but Mr. Cameron said there is little doubt that if the teachers win a contract that breaks the pattern agreed to by other public-sector unions, it would trigger greater demands from unions that have not yet settled with government. "In effect it would be 'me-too' by proxy," he said.
The cash-strapped BCTF has been unable to provide its members strike pay, but as the dispute drags on, labour and community groups are starting to provide aid. The union representing BC Hydro workers is considering a $100,000 loan to the BCTF, and other unions are expected to follow suit in the coming days. Local businesses are also stepping up, such as the Bandidas Taqueria on Commercial Drive in Vancouver, which is donating 100 per cent of its profit on Wednesdays to a new fund, Families Funding Teachers.
As well, Mr. Sinclair released a letter to Premier Christy Clark, signed by a string of public-sector union leaders, that takes aim at the government's divide-and-conquer strategy. "We urge you to immediately stop attributing your refusal to bargain critical issues with teachers because you want to be 'fair to other public sector workers,'" the letter states. "We strongly support the BCTF in determining their own path."