By Lisa Descary
Originally published at New Socialist, November 18 2014
It is hard to imagine that anybody who strongly supports public education in British Columbia was thrilled when the BC Liberals pulled off an unwelcome, last-minute election victory in 2013. Given the Liberals’ history of failure to address the basic needs of the public school system, it was plain to see that more trouble was on the horizon. But this time teachers would not just face the ongoing ebb and flow of government cut-backs and attempts at privatization that our union has to push back against, but a perfect storm that would test us like never before.
A perfect storm is a rare event that occurs when a number of negative circumstances combine in a way that makes a problem much worse than usual. In June of 2014, when BC public school teachers walked off the job, few would have thought we would be beginning what was to become the longest teachers’ strike in BC history. Even though a settlement was reached on September 19, 2014, teachers, students and parents are still dealing with the aftermath of this storm, which unlike natural storms, was perfectly preventable.
The BC Government tries to take a permanent upper hand
The key trigger was the election of 2013. Because of a series of scandals, broken promises, and bad policies (like the implementation of the HST), the BC Liberals were polling negatively just weeks before the election. But a series of campaign miscues by the NDP allowed the Liberals to not only win, but to renew their majority. For the Liberals, the lesson that this election taught them was that the public would not punish them at the polls for their mismanagement. Essentially, they had been handed a mandate to try to crush the British Columbia Teachers Federation (BCTF).
It would be hard to say the government bargained in good faith when they did nothing but stall at the bargaining table before making an offer that contained many poison pills
The BC Liberals had tried to do that once before, right after their election in 2001, when they abused their newly-given authority to illegally strip the teachers’ contract. Though the Liberals lost twice in the BC Supreme Court over that illegal action, it paid out an unexpected dividend for them at just the right time in this latest conflict with teachers. Teachers went into the bargaining year with their strike fund almost depleted from spending millions on court challenges fighting the Liberals’ 2002 illegal and unconstitutional contract stripping.
The final steps towards creating the perfect storm to break the BCTF occurred in the months leading up to the June strike. It would be hard to say the government bargained in good faith when they did nothing but stall at the bargaining table before making an offer that contained many poison pills. The government’s offer contained concessions on evaluation of teachers and autonomy over professional development, did not keep up with inflation and contained clauses that would nullify a BCTF win in the courts on the Liberals’ appeal of the contract stripping decision.
Given all these things, teachers felt like they had no choice but to escalate job action. However, it was now May, and a strike right at the end of the school year would greatly reduce its immediate impact. Worse, the depleted union coffers meant that, essentially, there would be no strike pay. The BCTF had only enough money to provide strike pay for the first three days for its 40,000 teachers. For the Liberals, things could not have looked any better. Their position was the strongest it had ever been just when the BCTF was coming up short in crucial areas of support. However, despite the ideal conditions, things didn’t go as well for the Liberals as they had planned.
Weaknesses and strengths of both sides of the strike
The Liberals had hoped to turn the public against the teachers as the strike dragged on through September, but it soon became clear that most people continued to support the teachers over the government. In an attempt to prolong the strike, Premier Christy Clark’s government offered parents a $40 a day payment to cover “childcare or tutoring costs” for children between the ages of five and thirteen years, but this strategy backfired. Many parents saw this as an attempt to buy their allegiance, and it exposed the Liberal strategy of trying to starve the teachers into accepting a contract.
Early in the strike, the media and other political pundits thought that the lack of a strike fund would cause teachers to begin crossing picket lines in September, since we had received no paycheques since May. However, picket lines were quite solid, the teachers’ morale was good, and the public and other unions helped out with donations to the union hardship fund.
It could be argued that one reason some teachers held out was because the union had in fact won against the government twice in court, and were continuing to put a lot of faith in the courts to solve their problems. But recent developments show that legal action is not the panacea that some think it is.
Ever since the government lost their case, they have launched a series of appeals, the latest of which was heard in October. Now teachers must wait until the next year to hear the court’s decision. Even then, odds are that if the Liberals lose, they will appeal to the federal Supreme Court, which will mean more long months of delay. This focus on the appeal of the court case was problematic during the strike because it meant that the BCTF felt they could not defy the Labour Relations Board rulings that forced teachers to submit final marks for grade twelve students while they were out on strike, thus giving up one of our main bargaining chips.
Teachers held the line, but that’s not enough
In the end, the final result of the teachers strike was not a decisive win, but neither was it a loss. While the Liberal government didn’t give teachers the fair salary increase or smaller class sizes that we were asking for, neither did they manage to strip contract provisions that guaranteed teacher-control of professional development and due process in evaluation and termination of teachers. Clauses that would have allowed the government to ignore a court ruling to restore our stripped contract language were removed from the final deal. And the deal did contain a small but real improvement in prep time for elementary teachers, as well as a tiny improvement in funding for hiring more specialist teachers. Unfortunately, a lot more is needed to reverse the effect of years of underfunding on class size and composition. We certainly shouldn’t have settled for such a weak contract.
A few real positive effects of the strike can be seen as we move forward. Many teachers are justifiably proud of standing up for public education — despite the personal cost — against such a nasty provincial government that had leaned on them as hard as it could. In my medium-sized local, not a single teacher crossed the picket lines. Far more teachers are showing an interest in talking about union issues on our local’s discussion site and attendance at union meetings is definitely up.
Although underfunding hasn’t been addressed by government, it is now much harder to hide or deny it. Teachers admitted that they were often guilty of camouflaging the severity of the effects of underfunding in their classrooms, either because of pressure from administrators not to highlight these issues, or because they felt that parents would blame the teacher for the poor learning conditions. During the strike, teachers encouraged each other to share their stories with parents and each other, and some of the Facebook pages that sprang up during job action are continuing to do just that.
Social movement unionism
The most important question for teacher activists is, “What can we do differently next time?” While other unions and the BC Federation of Labour did support us with money, what we really needed were solidarity strikes like the ones that happened when we went on strike in 2005. We also needed better connections between parent groups and the union. While there were some groups of parents who coordinated with teachers, this was localized and small-scale. If parents and teachers could really fight back together, it would throw a wrench into the government’s plans!
While there were some groups of parents who coordinated with teachers, this was localized and small-scale. If parents and teachers could really fight back together, it would throw a wrench into the government’s plans!
One way to improve our chances of winning against the neoliberal assault on public education is to embrace what American teacher union activist and academic Lois Weiner calls “social movement unionism.” While the BCTF is indeed a social justice union, social movement unionism calls for unions like the BCTF to forge real links with oppressed groups fighting against racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of oppression. Rather than just forming committees of interested teachers, the BCTF needs to send teachers out into the community to work within and alongside these groups, and to fight the Liberals’ agenda in a coordinated way.
In order to transform the BCTF, we could look to the example of groups like CORE — the Caucus of Rank and file Educators — the progressive caucus at the helm of the Chicago Teachers Union. Their recent struggle to defend their schools against the attack on public education showed how to engage classroom teachers in fighting back against right-wing attacks. Their rank and file organization was impressive. For example, instead of rubber-stamping their recent contract based on their leaders’ recommendation, Chicago teachers spent days perusing the wording of their deal. In fact, they rejected the first offer agreed to by the union leadership, asking them to go back and keep negotiating until they got a better deal.
This is a much more democratic situation than the one we had here where many teachers only saw the wording of the deal two hours before they were due to vote on it. While the Chicago teachers didn’t win a complete victory, they have built a union of activists who can build on past struggles to improve their odds of winning in the next ones –something I would like to see BC teachers do as well.
For now, BC teachers have weathered the Liberal storm. But how well we handle the next one will depend on whether we can use the tools of social movement unionism and rank and file organization to build a better union “boat.” Only then can we truly master the wind and waves of neoliberalism.
Lisa Descary is a secondary school classroom teacher, school union rep and activist. She has been teaching in the Greater Vancouver area for more than 20 years.