VICTORIA - Wage demands by British Columbia's teachers are so high they threaten the province's financial future, the Liberal government's chief contract negotiator said Friday.
Peter Cameron said he's not about to sacrifice the province's stellar credit rating on salary demands that are four times higher than most other public-sector unions.
Teachers want salary and cost-of-living increases that add up to 13.5 per cent over three years, while the government has tabled increases of 7.25 per cent over the first six years of a proposed 10-year contract, which includes re-opening clauses and the possibility of binding arbitration, Cameron told reporters.
"We can't get into their ballpark without risking the credit rating of this province," said Cameron, at the contract briefing session in Victoria. "This is a lot of money. What we want is them to make a big move. That's the move they are going to have to make to get a deal here."
Both Cameron and Jim Iker, the president of the BC Teachers' Federation, separately spoke with the media Friday after contract negotiations stalled.
B.C.'s AAA credit rating has been a solid goal and measure of pride for the Liberal government which says the excellent rating reduces borrowing costs and signals to investors worldwide that the province has firm control of its finances.
Cameron suggested the big move on the part of teachers would involve negotiating salary increases similar to the those reached by the B.C. Government and Service Employees Union and college instructors — four per cent over three years.
"They're at four times the settlement of the other guys," Cameron said of the union's demands. "They are nowhere near a settlement zone."
But Iker rejects Cameron's statement that union contract demands will hurt B.C.'s credit rating.
"It's actually a scare tactic (that) they are trying to use that we would be responsible for the credit rating of this province," he said at a news conference in Vancouver. "It's about priorities with this government."
He said the Liberals spent hundreds of millions of dollars to install a retractable roof at BC Place Stadium in Vancouver and decided to pay California power companies $750 million to avoid costly legal battles over surplus power sales, but when it comes to teachers and students the government pleads poverty.
"Reinvesting in education will be expensive after 12 years of cuts," Iker said. "It's time for this government to do something meaningful at the bargaining table. They need to deal with class size for our students. Yes, we need to deal with a fair and reasonable wage offer."
Iker said the government's continued desire to push for a 10-year contract is a settlement "stumbling block."
Earlier this week, teachers launched their first phase of job action, which included refusing to supervise students outside classrooms or communicating in writing with administrators.
Iker said the second phase would involve rotating strikes throughout the province, but a negotiated settlement before any walkouts is what the teachers want to achieve.
"For us, it's about negotiating a deal," he said. "It's not about escalating our job action. What we want is a deal at the table."
Cameron said the government may resort to measures next week to convince teachers that their demands can't be met, but he refused to elaborate, saying he doesn't want to negotiate in the media.
He provided cost estimates of the teacher wage demands. Each salary increase of one per cent, including benefits and other improvements, amounts to about $30 million, said Cameron.
The union claims each one per cent increase adds up to about $21 million.
Cameron estimated the third year of wage increases proposed by teachers, including benefits, will increase government costs by more than $576 million.
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version reported a $5.8 million increase in costs.
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