01/18/2012 12:46 EST | Updated 03/18/2012 05:12 EDT

No pay hike equals no deal for B.C. teachers after five months of strike action

VANCOUVER - B.C. teachers tabled their wage demands for the first time Tuesday in their long-running strike and announced they would scale back other demands, but the province's education minister said a more expensive contract is simply out of the question.

The B.C. Teachers' Federation announced Tuesday it wants a 15-per-cent wage hike over three years despite the government's current mandate that all new contracts with public sector unions cannot cost more.

The union is seeking a three-per-cent pay increase in each of three years of a new contract, plus a cost-of-living increase in the second and third years.

"We remain a great distance apart," said Education Minister George Abbott after the teachers announced their demands.

"I can't say I emerge from this with any sense of optimism and obviously there's work that continues to be done at the bargaining table and needs to be done at the bargaining table."

Abbott said he wants an end to the ongoing dispute after almost a year of bargaining and he's concerned that parents have not received report cards all year as part of the teachers' job action.

The union is also demanding what it describes as modest improvements to benefits, which union president Susan Lambert said haven't changed in 18 years

She said the union has agreed to reduce or drop some of its previous demands, such as a guaranteed wage for on-call teachers.

The 41,000-member teachers' union said it has dropped its demand for leave for paid professional development and reduced its discretionary leave proposal from six days to one day.

It had already dropped its much-criticized demand for two weeks paid leave after the death of a friend.

Lambert said the demands would cost employers $300 million, down from the $1 billion the government estimated the union's original demands would cost.

Abbott said the distance between the two sides is still hundreds of millions of dollars, adding the teachers' union was wrong to say Tuesday that its members received no wage increases in recent years.

"B.C. teachers have not taken zeros in recent years," he said. "They concluded, through a successful collective agreement in 2006, an agreement at about 16 per cent including a generous signing bonus."

Besides refusing to issue reports cards, teachers are also refusing to meet with their principals and Abbott said that's taking a toll.

"I'm concerned about the wear-and-tear that's occurring with principals, vice-principals and superintendents as we get deeper and deeper in this dispute," he said as the teachers' union continued negotiating with the B.C. Public School Employers' Association, the government's bargaining agent.

Abbott said other unions, including CUPE, have managed to negotiate contracts under the net-zero mandate.

Lambert noted the union has held nearly 70 bargaining sessions with the B.C. Public School Employers Association since last spring, but negotiations appear to have hit a logjam.

"It's almost a theatre of the absurd," said Lambert. "It's a farce."

"The net-zero mandate will not find a deal," she said. "It's perfectly reasonable that B.C. teachers want to keep up with inflation and move a little way towards catching up with other provinces."

Alberta teachers earn $20,000 more a year than their B.C. counterparts, while Ontario teachers receive $15,000 more, she said.

In October, Abbott said he was musing about a legislated end to the teachers' strike, which started on the first day of school in September.

In a ruling released in December, the B.C. Labour Relations Board concluded bargaining between teachers and their employers is so dysfunctional that changes must be made.

The three board members found the current strike action isn't putting pressure on either side to come to an agreement.

In 2002, now-premier Christy Clark, who was then the education minister, brought in legislation to strip teachers' collective agreement of guarantees for smaller class sizes and services to students with special needs.

Teachers mounted a successful court challenge but Lambert said the teachers' contract was stripped of $330 million a year.

In 2005, teachers staged an illegal two-week walkout and were fined $500,000 for contempt of court.

In April, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled the B.C. government's actions against teachers in 2002 were unconstitutional.

"What has to happen now for this to be a dignified and positive round of bargaining is for government to review its mandate and come to the table focused on signing a collective agreement," Lambert said.