BC teachers fight for a fair deal
By Tara Ehrcke
Bargaining chair and past president of the Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association
Teachers in British Columbia will be on the picket lines beginning next Monday May 26 after 16 months of failed contract talks. The strike is province-wide and rotating – teachers will strike one day per week in each school district. (see dates for each district here)
The government has also notified teachers Wednesday May 21 that they will be “locked out” effective May 26 for only certain activities. In what can only be described as a bizarre action, the government has told teachers that they cannot work more than 45 minutes prior to class time, during recess and lunch hour, and beyond 45 minutes after class. Nor can they participate in professional development activities. They will have 10 per cent of their pay deducted for this “lock out.”
Teachers are understandably furious at the government threat to reduce pay for not working on our breaks and lunch. Teachers are also upset at the impact this will have on student access to teachers and extra-curricular activities, which were purposely continued under the teacher job action on non-strike days.
The provocative move by government has caused a firestorm of reaction on Twitter. Teachers and parents are questioning Education Minister Fassbender on the government threat:
@FassbenderMLA so you have banned my daughter’s math teacher from staying after school to tutor math on his own time! How will that help?
@FassbenderMLA your lockout before & after school & at lunch means my school’s music & leadership programs can’t run. Shame. #bced
@FassbenderMLA Student and class blogs are moderated on my time. Do I have to let my parents know you are demanding me to shut them down?
The strike comes after twelve years of government attacks on teachers, our union, and public education. It was only six months into the BC Liberal mandate in 2002 that Bill 28 unilaterally removed all contract provisions relating to class size, class composition and specialist teacher ratios. That legislation was ruled unconstitutional by the BC Supreme Court in 2011 and the government was given twelve months to correct it.
The government response in 2012 was Bill 22. It was imposed during the last negotiating round, and has also been found to be unconstitutional by the BC Supreme Court. The government is appealing this court ruling to the BC Court of Appeal and refused to reinstate the stripped contract language.
The purpose of removing these contract provisions was two-fold: first, to reduce the public education budget by about $300 million per year. And second, to create mass layoffs and turn what was a teacher shortage into a teacher glut. Since the class size provisions were removed, over 2500 teacher jobs have been eliminated and it is now common for teachers to spend years in “on call” positions before a full time job is available. Just this spring, several school boards have announced drastic layoffs, such as Coquitlam, where 90 full-time positions have been eliminated.
Since the class size provisions were removed, over 2500 teacher jobs have been eliminated and it is now common for teachers to spend years in “on call” positions before a full time job is available
The impact has been drastic for teachers and students. In my school district, Greater Victoria, over a five year period, one in ten teachers will take a medical leave due to stressful working conditions. It is not uncommon to have a class of 30 students, with five to ten of those students having significant learning needs and/or disabilities such as autism, severe anxiety or oppositional defiant disorder. This is compounded by high levels of child poverty and many behavioural issues.
Classrooms, particularly in low income areas where poverty rates are high, are simply not suitable for teaching and learning. Some teachers are in a daily state of triage trying to keep a semblance of sanity for everyone there. Levels of violence are on the rise, with some teachers declaring unsafe work because students with violent behaviours are not adequately supervised.
Also at issue is wages. The class size provisions that were bargained provincially in the 1998 contract were paid for by teachers. We took two years of zero increases in 1998 and 1999 to cover the costs of smaller classes, which were then unilaterally stripped from our contract. Zero wage contracts were also imposed by legislation in 2004 and 2005, and in 2011 and 2012. Including this year, 2013, with no contract and no wage increase, this means teachers have had zero wage contracts in seven of the last 15 years.
Resolve needed to win
While the level of anger amongst teachers is high, it remains to be seen how events will unfold. Teachers took a heroic stand in 2005 when we stayed on the picket lines for two weeks after legislation was imposed and the courts found us in contempt. This was the type of action necessary to move an intransigent and ideologically motivated government off their position of concessions. The eventual agreement included contract improvements and some renewed class size provisions in the School Act.
Our last strike, however, had a very different ending. After three days on the line, the government imposed Bill 22, which not only ordered teachers back to work, but threatened fines for teachers and the union for continued strike action. In response, teachers returned to work.
Repeated use of back-to-work legislation, imposed contracts, and threats of fines mean that teachers must be willing to take risks if we are going to achieve our bargaining goals
Repeated use of back-to-work legislation, imposed contracts, and threats of fines mean that teachers must be willing to take risks if we are going to achieve our bargaining goals. While some teachers were willing to face the threats of fines in 2012, it was not a majority of those who argued and debated at our AGM what action to take. And sadly, there was never a member-wide vote on taking continued strike action, despite the fact that a vote was called for in the action plan. Instead, teachers withdrew extra-curricular activities – a strategy that proved to be divisive in some areas.
Hopefully the experiences of 2005 and 2012 will provide lessons and guidance for the type of action necessary to be successful this round. The frustrations of the day-to-day life in the classroom need to translate into teachers insisting that their union continue to take action even in the face of legislation which may yet come. This will be the way to win a fair deal.