Teachers look down strike path

Yukon's teachers face a big decision today. They stand at a fork in the road, and one path, which their union leadership is urging them to head down, looks like it will lead to a strike.

Yukon’s teachers face a big decision today.

They stand at a fork in the road, and one path, which their union leadership is urging them to head down, looks like it will lead to a strike.

The other route would bring collective negotiations to a peaceful end with an Ottawa-appointed arbitrator drawing up a binding deal.

Teachers will today cast ballots either in favour of the first option, known as conciliation, or the second, known as binding arbitration.

The teachers’ last collective agreement, which remains in effect, expired on June 30.

Despite protests to the contrary by Katherine Mackwood, president of the Yukon Teachers’ Association, teachers privately acknowledge that the current deadlock in negotiations boils down to money.

Teachers want annual wage increases of 4.5 per cent over two years. The territory is offering them 1.2 per cent annually, up from the government’s initial, pre-mediation offer of just one per cent annually.

Territorial negotiators are pleading poverty. Union representatives don’t buy it, and are calling on their members to fight back.

At a union meeting in the Whitehorse Westmark on Saturday, negotiators urged teachers to vote for conciliation. They acknowledged this would lead to a strike vote, and suggested that members ought to have three months’ savings stuffed away in case job action drags out.

As evidence that the territory can afford a better deal for teachers, union representatives point out that the Yukon’s public books, released in September, show the territory has $135 million in the bank.

However, those numbers don’t account for the latest spending splurge announced in November by Premier Dennis Fentie. The territory now anticipates to post a modest surplus of $220,000.

And the fact that the territory’s Crown corporations are privately borrowing more than $120 million to finance new construction projects may indicate that the government is running out of money.

If the territory is facing a cash pinch, it has more to worry about than negotiations with the teachers’ union, which represents about 750 members.

Next month, bargaining begins with the Yukon Employees’ Union, which has a membership more than five times as large, at around 4,000 employees. There will be far more at stake when these talks begin. This may help explain the government’s hard-line approach in its talks with the teachers’ union.

Yukon’s teachers insist their wage demands are in line with their counterparts in neighbouring jurisdictions. They point to teachers in the Northwest Territories, who received annual salary hikes of 4.5 per cent over three years in their last agreement, struck in May of 2008.

However, as it stands, Yukon’s teachers still enjoy the third-highest salaries in the country, lagging only behind their peers in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut.

And Yukoners, as a whole, enjoy less isolation, lower costs of living and better qualities of life than what’s found in Canada’s other territories.

A newly qualified teacher in the Yukon starts with an annual salary of $57,398. Wages top out at $91,751 for teachers with a master’s degree and a decade of experience.

Some teachers see the government’s low-ball offer as a provocation. But as they cast ballots today, educators will be asking themselves whether a strike is a fight they can win.

School strikes are divisive at the best of times, as some parents see themselves being held hostage by monopolistic public unions.

And as the country struggles to pull itself out of the recession, even Yukoners, who were largely insulated from the market crash, may have less sympathy than usual for striking government workers.

And Premier Fentie is at his most adept when he’s in a mudfight. Given how his reputation has been tarnished by a string of scandals over the past year, Fentie may even welcome a strike, if it offers him a chance to brand himself as the champion of the territory’s children.

Whether teachers are willing to strike over the size of their paycheques should be clear in the next day or so.

Contact John Thompson at johnt@yukon-news.com.