BC Teachers Strike 2014

imageBy Lisa Descary, a secondary school classroom teacher, school union rep and activist. She has been teaching in the Greater Vancouver area for more than 20 years.

It’s July in Greater Vancouver. Birds are singing, the sun is shining, and BC public school teachers like me are signing up for picket line shifts. Yes, that’s right: I am walking the picket line in July, a time when my school is not even in session. And I don’t even teach summer school. How did this happen?

Despite the claims of the government and commentators in the media, this is not because BC teachers suddenly dug in their heels. This conflict has been brewing for a long time.

The present BC teachers’ strike actually officially began in the spring this year, in March. It was forced on teachers because they had been without a contract since June of the previous year. In all those long months, the provincial Liberals had stubbornly refused to move an inch at the bargaining table, despite their offer including provisions that were completely unacceptable to the teachers. The government proposal included clauses that would strip the teachers’ contract in crucial areas such as autonomy over professional development and due process in teacher evaluations. It did not address class size and composition. To top it all off, it also included an unreasonable 10 year term and a wage offer that was well below inflation.

Faced with the Liberals’ intransigent refusal to bring reasonable demands to the bargaining table, teachers had no choice but to respond with job action. Teachers voted 89% in favour of taking more direct action; this began on April 22 with a work-to-rule campaign that was carefully planned so that it targeted administrators but would not affect students.

From work to rule to “partial lockout”

Many teachers were hopeful that this low-level job action would be effective, since documents had surfaced in a previous court case between the Liberal government and the BC Teachers Federation (BCTF) that showed that the Liberals were afraid of the impact of similar work-to-rule action in 2012. Those documents and court testimony by Liberals also revealed that in 2012, the Liberal government had deliberately tried to provoke teachers into a full scale walkout. They felt this would give them grounds to legislate a contract and force teachers back to work, which they did when they passed Bill 22.

In January 2014, BC Supreme Court Justice Susan Griffin made scathing comments in her summary after the court ruled against Bill 22 on the grounds that the government had acted in bad faith and unconstitutionally. Justice Griffin said “The government did not negotiate in good faith … the government representatives were pre-occupied by another strategy … to put such pressure on the union that it would provoke a strike by the union. The government representatives thought this would give government the opportunity to gain political support for imposing legislation on the union.”

This ruling came in the midst of the current contract negotiations. Yet despite the court’s condemnation the BC government has continued to act in a provocative way.

On May 15, Education Minister Peter Fassbender took the seemingly positive step of removing the ridiculous requirement for a 10 year deal from the table, and offered teachers a $1200 signing bonus if they signed a deal by June 30. Was this a sign that the government was willing to take direction from the Supreme Court and finally negotiate in good faith?

Of course, this was too good to be true. The next day, the Liberals announced that they would impose a 5% wage cut if teachers continued their work-to-rule campaign. The cut would be increased to 10% if teachers escalated job action to include rotating strikes.

This action by the government showed they had learned nothing from their censure by the Supreme Court. Their proposal still stripped out key elements of the teachers’ contract and they were still obstinately unwilling to address class size and composition issues. Though teachers were understandably leery of escalating job action to include a full strike late in the school year, they had no choice.

To minimize the impact on students, the BCTF began rotating strikes to increase pressure on the bargaining table. Despite loudly proclaiming how much they didn’t want students getting caught in the middle, the Liberals responded on May 26 with a “partial lockout” of teachers. This prohibited teachers from working over lunch or working more than 45 minutes before and after school (prime times for helping students). To complete their escalation, the Liberals also imposed a 10% wage cut.

This partial lockout enraged teachers, who turned to social media and local newspapers to explain how it was hurting kids by preventing them from helping students at lunch and after or before the 45 minute window (see #christyclarkslockout on Twitter).

The role of the LRB

The BCTF took the Liberals to the Labour Relations Board (LRB) to challenge the wage cut and partial lockout, but lost. While some have claimed that this ruling validates the government’s action, it does not. In fact, it was no surprise at all that the LRB ruled against the BCTF. 

Though many people believe the LRB is impartial (something the BC government is counting on), there are major problems with how the LRB operates, beginning with the fact that BC is only jurisdiction in North America that doesn’t have both business and labour members on its labour relations board. But the chief problem is that the LRB chair, Brent Mullin, was hand-picked in 2002 by then Minister of Education Christy Clark to head the board because of his partisan and anti-labour views.

Ever since Mullin’s appointment, the LRB has continually ruled in management’s favour. The BC Supreme Court has previously criticized the LRB for being biased and has in fact overturned LRB rulings because they had already decided for management well before the opposite view had been presented.

Christy Clark has played a long game to pack the LRB with her supporters so that time and again they can use the public perception of the impartiality of the board to disguise and legitimize their attacks on the BCTF.

It was the LRB that allowed the Liberals to deem teachers an essential service in 2002, a move that was condemned by the UN International Labour Organization. This designation is used as a cudgel against the union. Indeed, in this strike the Liberals have been able to neutralize each of teachers’ bargaining chips one by one by having them deemed “essential” work by the LRB: first grade 12 marks, and then subsequently grade 10, 11 and 12 provincial exams, and finally grade 10 and 11 final marks.

Faced with such provocative and aggressive government actions, the teachers were forced to respond. In June, teachers voted 86% to escalate from rotating strikes to a full walkout. At this point, teachers were aware that the strike fund had been exhausted by almost 40 000 teachers having struck for three days in rotating strikes. The fact that they went out anyway proved how false the accusations were that teachers were only motivated by money. Using the hashtag #thisismystrikepay, teachers went to Twitter and Facebook to share their personal stories of how they were committed to continue their fight to protect elements critical to the health of public education.

Teachers were not the only ones to take the fight to social media; the Liberals also used it to attempt to demoralize teachers and undermine public support for the strike. Despite this, public support has been much more on the side of teachers than of government, with polling putting support for teachers at about 50%, while only about 35% supported the government.

The Liberals wasted $80 000 on ads in social media that attempted to show that BCTF bargaining proposals were outside the “zone of affordability.” Using a graphic with an exaggerated scale, they represented teachers’ demands as a “planet” orbiting the outer “solar system” of other public sector contracts. Teachers quickly made this strategy back-fire on the government by skewering the original campaign with their own satirical versions of the Liberals’ ad.

That the Liberals would dishonestly represent teachers’ salary proposals surprised nobody. Every time they have negotiated with teachers, the government has  attempted to focus attention on wage demands so they can tarnish teachers’ reputation, while hiding how badly the government has failed on issues like class size and composition.

Class size and composition

Restoring class size and class composition provisions included in the contract has long been an important goal for BCTF members. This is to counteract the damage the BC Liberals did in 2001: within six months of their election they enacted Bills 27 and 28, which stripped class size and class composition from teachers’ collective agreements.

Collective agreements had previously guaranteed a maximum number of special needs students that could be included in a single class, in order to allow for enough one-on-one time for teachers to attend to those students’ special needs (as the BCTF often points out, teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions). Ratios of specialist teachers like counselors and Learning Assistance teachers, which had previously been guaranteed in contracts, were eliminated by these bills. The worst parts of Bills 27 and 28 made it illegal to bargain specialist teacher ratios or class size and composition limits in future collective agreements.

When Bills 27 and 28 were enacted, the BCTF took the government to court for illegally stripping those provisions from contracts. Both these bills were later struck down by the BC Supreme Court for being unconstitutional and in breach of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

After the win by the teachers in court, the Liberal government merely re-introduced those same bills under another name to circumvent the ruling. Bill 19 even contained the same wording as the original legislation that had been deemed unconstitutional by the courts. The BCTF took the government back to court. The union won again, but still wasn’t able to bargain class size and composition because the government decided to appeal the decision.

What next?

So where are BC teachers now? BCTF president Jim Iker has been calling for mediation since June 19. However, the Liberal government seems content to let teachers walk picket lines all summer, and there are some who speculate that teachers may find themselves still picketing in September.

So what is the best strategy to move forward? Should we pin our hopes on the court case to solve our problems with class size and composition? Is that even an option when the government continues to act with blatant disregard for court rulings?

While BC teachers did have a big win in court when the contract stripping of class size and composition language was deemed unconstitutional, it seems now that our most effective actions — refusing to prepare final marks, refusing to invigilate provincial exams — keep being deemed “illegal” by the LRB.

So far, the BCTF has asked teachers to respect the law, despite the fact that the definition of what counts as illegal job action keeps changing and that those who make the rules are far from unbiased. The BCTF argument has been that to defy these rulings would put us in contempt of court, which might jeopardize our standing when the appeal of the Bill 19 contract stripping decision is heard this fall.

However, I think the strategy of depending on the courts rather than on activism is not an effective one, given that big wins in court before have not deterred the BC government’s aggression in the slightest. At our local’s emergency meeting on June 9, when a few teachers spoke in favour of defying the rulings, there was significant support for this course of action. Teachers who were around for the 2005 strike know that in that two week illegal strike we made the only real gains we have made this decade.

If the Liberal government continues to bargain in bad faith, and keeps using the courts to short circuit our job action, and if the action continues into the fall, then BC teachers have an important decision ahead. Will we allow ourselves to be legislated back to work and hope for improvements to the contract from the courts, which the BC government will continue to ignore, or will we stand up and say “an unjust law is no law at all”? I know which strategy I think will win. Teachers need to talk it up on their summer picket lines.

This piece was originally published on the New Socialist Webzine

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