Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Clark's pension costs taxpayers $76k a year, but disability rate increase not 'affordable'

Premier Christy Clark scores top marks for hypocrisy in explaining why British Columbians on disability benefits, and their children, should live in poverty.
Clark said this week that she knows the benefits, frozen since 2007, are too low. But British Columbia is just too poor to provide any increase. That will have to wait for some unknown future when it is “affordable,” she said.
But Clark believes it’s perfectly affordable to have taxpayers contribute $76,000 a year to fund her pension.
A single parent with one child on disability benefits in British Columbia - someone like Clark - receives $1,272 a month. That’s up to $570 for rent and $672 for everything else. They are expected to raise a child on $15,000 a year. 
Increasing disability assistance rates after seven frozen years is impossible, Clark says. Not “affordable.”
But MLAs believe that they need up to $1,580 a month for a temporary second home in Victoria to use when the legislature is sitting. That’s affordable.
They believe a pension plan that requires four dollars from taxpayers for every dollar paid by MLAs is affordable. The taxpayer contribution to fund the plan works out to an average $48,000 a year for each of the 85 MLAs.
The claim that British Columbia can’t afford to raise income assistance and disability assistance rates is simply false. 
The reality is that government has chosen to leave some 33,000 children and their families in poverty. People on assistance benefits are forced into substandard, sometimes dangerous housing, and denied the ability to afford the basics of life. 
It’s destructive for everyone. A single person is supposed to find housing that costs less than $375 and live on $122 a week. That is a grim existence for anyone, even people who are on income assistance for short periods. 
For people with few job options - those on disability assistance and with “persistent multiple barriers to employment” - it’s especially dire. They represent about two-thirds of recipients.
And government-mandated poverty is especially devastating for children. It does lasting damage to their health, educational achievements and social adjustment, and damages their prospects in life. Raising the rates now will save money for taxpayers in future, improve their lives and build a stronger province.
Clark needs to be honest. The rates haven’t been increased since 2007 because government has decided the needs of those people aren’t as important as its other priorities.
Including pay raises, pensions and benefits for MLAs.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Expect a teachers' strike in September

The chances of reaching a new teachers’ contract this month range from slim to none. 
There can always be breakthroughs when both parties sit down and bargain seriously, especially with the help of a mediator.
But that usually requires some preconditions. 
The number of outstanding issues needs to be reduced, and the distance between employer and union positions narrowed. The negotiators need to have prepared their principals - politicians and union members, in this case - for inevitable compromises.
And both sides need to feel under pressure to reach an agreement.
None of those are in place. There are still too many issues on the table for effective final bargaining - benefit improvements, prep time, salary grid changes, class size and composition. 
And the parties are too far apart. On pay, for example, the union wants a $5,000 signing bonus and raises that would increase pay by 8.2 per cent by 2017. The employer proposes $1,200 and raises that would see pay rise 4.6 per cent by the same date. The union’s proposed signing bonus would cost $150 million; the government’s proposal would cost $36 million. The union wage proposal would cost the government about $75 million more a year by 2017 than the government proposal.
The government hasn’t come up with any legitimate response to court decisions that demand bargaining on class size and composition based on the clauses eliminated when it ripped up contracts.
The B.C. Teachers Federation has raised members’ expectations, making it hard to sell any eventual compromise deal. If negotiators go public with a long list of proposals after a strike has been launched, those become the benchmarks for union members. 
And the union’s ill-timed strike is costing a typical member $350 a day in gross pay (without increasing pressure on the government). Some have characterized the $5,000 signing bonus as necessary replacement for the money they lost by striking. Their position is increasingly entrenched.
All those factors make a settlement unlikely.
So does the apparent belief of at least some participants on both sides that this process is a battle of right and wrong. Negotiations are about reaching a deal based on what is possible, not a holy crusade.
More talks in the next two weeks are unlikely to result in a settlement. But they might resolve at least a few items, or bring a little more clarity about what a final deal would look like.
But at this point, the union and government need to begin considering how they will deal with the impact of a strike in September. 
Ultimately, parents won’t stand for schools to be closed. If a deal can’t be reached at the negotiating table, one will be imposed.
Public opinion is critical in that process. If the government believes the public sides with the teachers, the imposed settlement will reflect that. If government thinks they have support, the deal will give less to teachers. 
It’s a lousy way to reach agreement on pay and working conditions for some 33,000 employees. But until the process is improved, it’s what we’ve got.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Teachers' June strike a tactical error

I don’t understand the teachers’ union decision to strike with two weeks left in the school year.
Parents resent school closures at any time; they impose serious hardships on working families. My entirely unscientific sampling in the Comox Valley suggests parents blame both government and union for the strike/lockout.
But shutting down schools now has little real impact. End-of-year events are lost, but starting summer holidays two weeks early doesn’t pose much of a threat to learning.
Government can wait out the strike without much pressure from parents. Based on the first reports on weekend bargaining, that appears to be what has happened.
And starting today, a typical teacher will be losing about $350 a day in gross pay. Union strike pay is $50 a day, but the fund is virtually empty.
By the end of the week, an average teacher will be out $1,750, the equivalent of a 2.4-per-cent raise. 
Strikes and lockouts are part of bargaining. But they’re destructive, and usually launched as a last resort. 
It’s hard to see the B.C. Teachers’ Federation at such a point. There is no obvious deadline for a new contract to be reached. The union is probably nervous - rightly - that the government would use the length of negotiations as a reason to impose a contract. But a strike now doesn’t change that and might strengthen the government’s position.
If a deal isn’t reached in the next two weeks, the strike could make reaching a settlement more difficult. Teachers would be out $3,000 or $4,000, and some would expect the union to get that money back in a new contract.
And the union has limited its options for job action in September.
I’ll look at the issues once the information is clearer. But the BCTF's tactical decision to strike now is baffling.