Let's say the B.C. government suddenly found itself with $500 million to spend on something.
Where should the money go?
I suspect a good starting point would be clearing up any waiting list for services from Community Living B.C., which helps adults with developmental disabilities. The government has already increased funding here, but perhaps a few more million dollars is required.
How about income assistance? Surrey NDP MLA Jagrup Brar has spent a month drawing attention to the fact that it is nearly impossible to survive on the monthly assistance rate and an argument can be made that those rates should be increased.
Then there's the court system. Judges are demanding more resources, and are staying cases at an increasing rate because the system isn't funded adequately enough to see those cases through the process in a timely fashion.
More areas to spend those tax dollars: tackling homelessness, reducing health-care wait lists, lowering university tuition levels, or perhaps cutting medical service premiums.
But wait! Why not just give all $500 million to the province's teachers in the form of a salary increase and benefit hikes?
That is precisely what the B.C. Teachers' Federation is proposing. If the cashstrapped government has any extra money, it should go directly into teachers' wallets, is the BCTF's train of thought.
The teachers' union has tabled a contract proposal asking for a 16 per cent salary increase over three years.
According to the BCTF, the proposal would cost taxpayers $305 million in the first year. The employer (the B.C. Public Schools Employers' Association) pegs the true cost at $498 million.
But either figure is from dreamland. Does the BCTF really think teachers' pay packets should be the top priority for adding costs to the government's budget, ahead of other areas of government spending that need addressing?
I correspond with a lot of teachers - through email and Twitter - and I'm struck by their earnest idealism, devotion to and passion for their jobs. Although they get two months off in the summer (plus another few weeks off at Christmas and spring break), many work long hours each day (often at nights at home) doing what it takes to deliver a quality education to their students.
But I'm also amazed at their inability to see how they fit into a much bigger picture. To them, everything is about education and nothing else seems to count.
As a result of this lofty view, the BCTF is chronically unable to articulate a realistic contract proposal. We're teachers, we're unassailable, and we're entitled to pretty well anything we ask for, is the mantra.
An example of the union's tin ear when it comes to negotiations is its insistence that comparisons to teachers' salaries in other provinces are the starting point for talks. This doesn't happen in any other labour negotiations, unless there is a significant shortage of the profession in question.
This is a lever the B.C. Nurses Union pulls with great effectiveness. There is a shortage of nurses in this country, and so provinces do whatever it takes - to a point - to retain their services.
But there is no shortage of teachers (although more are needed in certain specialties, such as math, French immersion and the sciences) in this province. In fact, there are young teachers who can't get fulltime work.
So when the BCTF screams that teachers are so better off in Alberta or Ontario, the temptation from the employer (i.e. the taxpayer) is to say, fine, move there.
It's interesting to note that current BCTF president Susan Lambert's leadership is being challenged by another teacher, who is said to represent a more conservative wing of the union (if such a thing exists).
I have no idea whether the leadership challenge is a serious one or not, and I'm not sure a change in leadership would alter the BCTF's strategy at the negotiating table.
I suppose a successful negotiation for a new contract is still theoretically possible, but not when numbers like 15 per cent and $500 million are being thrown around.
The more realistic numbers are something like this: zero, zero and maybe three per cent in the third year. And rather than hoping for a huge increase in benefits, the BCTF might want to focus on ensuring it doesn't get hit with all those concessions the employer is looking for.
Because I can pretty well guarantee that if $500 million suddenly materializes in government coffers, it won't be going directly to the BCTF.
Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC
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