01/17/2012 04:36 EST | Updated 03/18/2012 05:12 EDT

B.C. rejects teachers' new wage demands

B.C. Education Minister George Abbott is giving low marks to a new wage proposal from the provincial teachers’ union that was intended to breathe new life into stalled contract talks.

The B.C. Teachers Federation claimed to have pared down its demands in an effort to break the deadlock, but Abbott was not impressed, saying, “Even my boundless optimism has been greatly tempered."

The teachers are demanding a three-per-cent increase this year and six-per cent increase in each of the next two years, plus "modest improvements to benefits" for a total estimated cost of $300 million in the first year alone.

Previously the government has said all public sector contracts, including the one with teachers, will be "net zero," meaning any pay raises or changes to working conditions must be negotiated without increasing the overall cost of the collective agreement.

Abbott flatly rejected the teachers' Tuesday proposal as being out of touch with the net zero reality.

"Net zero is not something that we have done to be difficult," said Abbott.

Teachers reject net zero

The BCTF's Susan Lambert said the new teachers’ proposal represents significant concessions and said net zero was a no-go, as it represented a pay cut for her members.

"We are asking government to break the net-zero mandate for teachers. The net-zero mandate will not find a deal,” Lambert said.

Talks between the BCTF and their employers, the B.C. Public School Employers' Association have been stalled for months and Abbott has already hinted that a legislated deal may have to be forced on the 40,000 teachers.

Previously the employers’ association had said the total cost of the teacher's demands was in the range of $2.2 billion, a figure the BCTF called "grossly exaggerated."

Job action continues

B.C.'s teachers have been staging job action since the start of the school year in September after their contract expired in June, but Tuesday was the first time they have released the details of their wage demands.

Lambert said teachers need the wage increase to keep up with the rising cost of living and to close the gap with their counterparts in Alberta and Ontario, who earn up to $20,000 more per year.

“It’s perfectly reasonable that B.C. teachers want to keep up with inflation and move a little way towards catching up with teachers in other provinces,” Lambert said.

“B.C.’s economy is stronger than most, yet other provincial governments have set their priorities to invest in classrooms, teachers, and kids, not to cut education budgets.”

As part of their job action teachers have stopped doing administrative work, have limited their dealings with parents and are refusing to produce report cards.