A few things have changed since the last all-out teacher strike in B.C.
That was just two years ago, when the B.C. Teachers’ Federation was coming off its second-ever voluntary agreement with a 16 per cent raise over five years and what the union termed an “enhanced” signing bonus of $4,000. Even with special teacher-only top-ups, BCTF members almost rejected the last of the government’s big-spending pre-Olympic labour deals signed in 2006.
By 2012, outraged teachers were back on the legislature lawn, howling for another 16 per cent, with backup vocals provided as usual by HEU, CUPE, BCGEU and other public sector unions that settled for less. Teachers had just sailed through a crippling global recession with a series of raises, but were oblivious to all that.
Last week the protest venue switched to Vancouver, where both the crowd and the demands looked a bit thinner. The signing bonus target is up to $5,000, but the raise is a mere eight per cent over five years (compounded, for those who passed math), plus another huge basket of cash disguised as benefit improvements and so forth. Government negotiators put teachers’ total compensation demand at 14.5 per cent.
One obvious dodge: they want the bottom two steps of the teacher salary grid dropped. That’s simply a raise for entry-level teachers. Admittedly those are rare creatures these days with shrinking enrollment and ironclad seniority rules that allow retired teachers to monopolize substitute work.
Something else that’s changed since 2012 is that the government has granted the BCTF’s wish to bargain directly with the province. The education ministry executed a takeover of the B.C. Public School Employers’ Association after last year’s election, and installed veteran industrial union negotiator Peter Cameron. He’s backed up by long-time labour specialist Lee Doney, whose task is to keep the teacher deal within Treasury Board limits that have defined all other public sector union settlements.
Doney made it clear last week that no mediator is going to come in and “split the baby” as long as the BCTF position is so far beyond the current compensation framework.
Despite constant union complaints of low wages and deteriorating working conditions in B.C. schools, education grads remain lined up around the block hoping to get in. Why is that?
For those who have been exposed to life outside school for a while, it’s fairly simple. The job market out here in the real world is tough. And here’s how the real world evaluates a teaching job.
Start with 189 working days, each nine hours long as per the accepted definition, and the top-heavy seniority list that places the average teacher salary at around $72,000 a year. That works out to $42.32 an hour, plus a suite of benefits that most private sector employees can only dream about, starting with three months of prime-time vacation.
I am occasionally lectured by teachers that the job goes far beyond five hours in the classroom and an additional four hours a day preparing and marking. They throw out different estimates, variously defined. Alas, it’s a salaried job, and we salaried employees in the real world don’t waste a lot of time counting hours. Here’s the work, here’s the deadline, here’s the pay. Take it or leave it.
Consider another union demand that seems to be just another thinly disguised raise. The BCTF wants a large increase in preparation time for elementary school. There are no duties being added here. For this one item, government negotiators calculate the cost to taxpayers at $86.2 million every year by the fifth year of the BCTF proposal.
Tom Fletcher is legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press. Find him on Twitter @tomfletcherbc or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.