So teacher wants a raise?


Like many other labour organizations before them who fail to get what they want at the bargaining table, the Nunavut Teachers’ Association resorted earlier this month to an old tactic: use of the news media to attack their employer.

Their biggest grievances are well known: a Government of Nunavut proposal that offers no wage increases for four years and a change in regulations governing who qualifies for an Inuit language allowance.

On its face, the union’s position appears not unreasonable — but also not strong enough to justify its histrionic reaction to the GN’s offer.

First, the public should consider the Government of Nunavut’s financial position, which is always precarious. In most years since April 1, 1999, spending demands, mostly forced on them by statutory obligations, have risen faster than revenues, for which the GN is almost totally dependent on the federal government.

Most of that federal money flows into Nunavut through a big agreement called the territorial financing formula, or TFF. Since 2004, the TFF has worked reasonably well for Nunavut, allowing the Nunavut government to either break even or post small deficits most years. And because the GN is perennially understaffed, unspent salary money has also helped them balance their books.

But the GN’s current financing deal with Ottawa expires in 2014, along with similar agreements with the other two territories. There is no guarantee that the next set of agreements will be as generous as those that are about to expire. Although talks have started, the issue is clouded with uncertainty.

We do know, however, that the federal government posted a record deficit of $55.6 billion in 2009-10 and is expected to post a $45.4 billion deficit in 2010-11. We also know that Jim Flaherty, the federal finance minister, has promised to eliminate federal deficits by 2016.

It’s simply unimaginable that the federal government can meet this target without spending reductions — including reductions in transfers to the territories and provinces.

This doesn’t mean that the NTA’s wage demands are necessarily unreasonable.

But it should tell you that officials within the GN’s finance department have bigger issues to worry about than whether a teacher gets paid for a snow day.

Next, the public should also be aware that it’s within this context that the GN will soon be negotiating a new collective agreement with its other big labour adversary: the Nunavut Employees Union. The NEU’s most recent collective agreement with the GN expired this past Sept. 30. It’s likely that this organization, which represents most territorial government workers, will come to the bargaining table with new wage and benefit demands of their own.

Yet another missing piece of context is Nunavut’s cash-poor population. According to information that Statistics Canada gathers from income tax returns, the median income reported by Nunavut tax filers in 2008 was only $24,750 a year.

Median means “middle.” This reveals, therefore, that exactly half of all wage earners in Nunavut reported annual income totaling less than this figure.

The median annual income for affluent Iqaluit that year was $57,330, but in cash-poor Sanikiluaq, only $9,730. In Arctic Bay, median income for the year fell to $11,810 from $12,500 in 2006.

In contrast, a newly hired teacher in Iqaluit, according to a recent job advertisement for an elementary school teacher, can expect to receive $61,882 to $96,533 a year, plus a northern allowance of $15,o16,.

This means the actual cost to the employer of hiring this teacher ranges from $76,898 to $111,549 annually, and outside Iqaluit, even more. That’s not counting the cash value of other benefits, such as supplementary health insurance, pension contributions, expense allowances, and subsidized staff housing. In the context of Nunavut, teachers sit near the top of the income ladder.

In 2010-11, the GN’s Department of Education is projected to spend $217.8 million on operations. Of that, employee wage and benefits form the greatest single expense: a whopping $123.4 million.

Unlike other governments, the GN can’t sell bonds or indulge in other forms of borrowing to cover its deficits. Our territorial government has no choice but to balance its books.

As well, the GN has to worry about numerous other financial issues we haven’t even mentioned, such as how to pay for the recommendations that its anti-poverty task force are expected to produce in a year or so. Given Nunavut’s growing divide between haves and have-nots, this is a file where at least some action will be essential.

A zero per cent wage offer may sound like tough medicine. But it can get worse. In 1995, all territorial government employees swallowed a 6.5 per cent wage cut, along with the elimination of separate vacation travel allowances and other benefits. It wasn’t pretty, but the territorial public service survived.

So placed within a larger context, the NTA’s recent utterances are remarkably narrow and remarkably childish. Instead of filling the air with words like “shame, shame, shame,” they could try forming sentences that begin with words like these: “We understand the GN’s difficult financial position, but…”

That’s the kind of language that adults use when they’re sincere about reaching a reasonable compromise. JB

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