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Teachers' contract requests off the planet

HOW many people reading this are entitled to two weeks off work - with pay - because a friend has died?

That type of paid leave is precisely what the B.C. Teachers' Federation is seeking for its members in the current round of contract talks, and it is the kind of request that demonstrates just how much the BCTF has become detached from public opinion.

On an individual basis, many teachers are no doubt passionate and deeply committed to the task of teaching children. Collectively, however, their judgment becomes blurry and questionable.

According to the teachers' employer - the B.C. Public School Employers' Association - the BCTF's contract position will cost $2.9 billion in new money. That is a staggering amount of money and it comes at a time when the government, which funds the BCPSEA, is a long ways from balancing its books.

While a reasonable argument can be made that teachers deserve a raise - who doesn't? - it's hard to square their contract request with their employers' fiscal position.

The BCTF has declined to state just what exactly it is looking for in terms of a percentage increase in salaries, but it has said its members deserve parity with the best paid teachers in the country. That translates to an increase of at least 20 per cent in wages and benefits, if not more.

Asking for pay hikes that greatly exceed anything seen in the public or private sector is nothing new for the BCTF, of course. Just weeks after the events of 9/11, when the entire world was reeling in shock, the BCTF tabled a contract request for a 34 per cent wage increase. Not surprisingly, the union was held up for ridicule and contempt.

In the next round of bargaining, the BCTF wanted a further 24 per cent. These demands came at a time when most unions were getting raises for their members that hovered in the two per cent a year range.

In the current round of bargaining - although real "bargaining" never seems to occur in BCTF-BCPSEA negotiations - it is not just a salary increase that highlights the difference between the BCTF and every other union.

What other union member gets: two weeks paid leave for the death of a friend, plus two paid days for travel; a half year's paid leave to care for someone else, not necessarily a family member; another week's pay to care for a child; paid leave to do union work?

Throw in a new bonus that would see veteran teachers get an entire year's pay just for retiring, and you can see that BCTF negotiators inhabit a completely different world than their counterparts in either the public or private sector.

What's puzzling about all the information coming out from both the employer and the BCTF in regards to contract talks is that nothing has emerged that addresses the number 1 issue for teachers: class composition and class size.

These are issues where the BCTF will likely draw on significant public support. I talked to a number of teachers at the last BCTF annual convention, and all had compelling stories of deteriorating learning conditions in the classroom.

Kids with special needs are in particular need of increased support. One teacher told me she had eight special needs kids in her class. They understandably took up most of her time - which means the rest of the kids in her class don't get the attention they need.

If the BCTF sticks to fighting for better classroom condition and stops demanding unrealistic improvements to benefits and wages, it will fare better with the public and at the negotiating table.

. . .

I'm on record for saying that David Hahn has done a first-rate job in his time as the head of B.C. Ferries. He has overseen the rebuilding of the aging fleet, a vast improvement in labour relations at the company, and better conditions at most terminals.

Rising ferry fares have thrust B.C. Ferries into a negative light in recent years, but keeping the fares down has more to do with increasing the government subsidy than changing much of what B.C. Ferries does internally.

However, the decision by the B.C. Ferries board to grant Hahn a pension worth more than $300,000 a year is ridiculous. It shows the board is out of touch with the public, and casts Hahn in a particularly poor light.

It's time to revisit that pension decision.

Keith.Baldrey@globalnews.ca

Keith Baldrey is chief political correspondent for Global BC.

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