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News is mixed for teachers' union

The deal recently hammered out between school support unions and their employer potentially contains both good and bad news for the one union that never seems to get a deal - the B.C. Teachers' Federation.

The deal recently hammered out between school support unions and their employer potentially contains both good and bad news for the one union that never seems to get a deal - the B.C. Teachers' Federation.

The new two-year contract between CUPE and the B.C. Public School Employers' Association affects about 30,000 people and runs into next year.

The main headline arising from the contract is that it does not provide any wage increase for CUPE members over the two years, thus making it the latest contract to fall into place under the provincial government's socalled "net zero mandate."

Although a BCTF news release quickly praised the contract as putting "pressure" on the government at its own bargaining table, it's hard to see how the BCTF can take much comfort at all from the fact the other big school union just accepted a wage freeze.

In fact, there was practically jubilation in the government's ranks when it heard CUPE had accepted a zero and zero contract. One would think such a contract puts pressure on the BCTF to get rid of its going-nowhere-fast wage demands, not the opposite.

The CUPE contract also guaranteed more money to hire more educational assistants to help in dealing with classroom composition and special needs students.

This is the offer rejected by the BCTF in separate talks aimed to settling composition and class size issues.

So CUPE has agreed on two key points that the BCTF won't budge from. It's another example of how divorced the BCTF has become from the labour movement and political reality.

However, the teachers' union may want to seize upon another part of the CUPE deal that could have an impact on what will likely be a legislated contract on the BCTF.

According to CUPE, the employer had been pressuring the union to accept concessions in negotiations. However, the framework agreement has dropped those concessions (dealing with such things as contract language, technological change and benefits).

Although the BCTF has created quite a fuss with its compensation demands (a 20-plus per cent wage increase to achieve parity with other provinces and generous paid leave provisions), the fact is the employer is seeking hefty concessions at the negotiating table.

Early in the talks, the B.C. Public School Employers' Association was seeking an end to making seniority a key determinant in placing teachers in positions in schools. It also wants to make annual performance reviews of all teachers mandatory.

The BCTF has said the employer is also seeking to weaken certain benefits, such as sick leave.

Now, there is absolutely no hope of the BCTF achieving anything even remotely similar to what it is demanding when it comes to financial compensation (giving the BCTF even a tiny raise opens up "me-too" clauses in many other public sector contracts that agreed to the net zero mandate).

But what if the BCTF dropped its wage demands and said, in return, get rid of the concessions? That may have more traction with the public, and it could put a lot more pressure on the government than CUPE's zero-and-zero agreement.

Of course, the government may very well impose those concessions in a contract anyway.

But if the BCTF showed a willingness to move off the wage demands in exchange for eliminating the concessions, that may impress a judge if the BCTF were to take the government to court over stripping anything (i.e. seniority) out of their contract.

The BCTF, remember, defeated the government in court because it arbitrarily stripped the class size limits out of the contract.

The judge's ruling stressed the requirement of the government to consult extensively and reasonably before it embarked on such a path.

If the BCTF showed it was willing to significantly soften its position, perhaps the government might think twice about that potentially looming contract-stripping.

Of course, the chances of anything like this actually happening are probably remote.

The BCTF rarely shows an appetite (or even ability) to compromise during contract talks, so why would it start now?

But such a change in course may well end up serving its members a lot better than clinging to the impossible dream.

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global B.C.