by Tara Ehrcke
Just one year ago, BC teachers returned to class from what was the longest teacher strike in Canadian history. Teachers, upset with over a decade of deteriorating funding and particularly with large and complex classrooms, were unwilling to accept a contract offer which simply maintained the status quo. In one of the highest strike mandates in the BCTF’s history, they chose to strike.
This was not something new for BC teachers. In fact, this was the third strike in a decade. Teachers walked off the job for two weeks in 2005, and for three days in 2012. Teachers in BC have also refused to administer standardized tests, been on various types of work to rule for multi-month periods, and conducted a wide variety of local actions to push for various improvements. It is not for nothing that the union has a reputation for militancy.
On one level, the longest teachers’ strike in Canadian history is a testament to the determination of teachers to win a better deal both for students and themselves as workers. But to truly learn the lessons of a decade of fighting neoliberal austerity, we need to take a realistic account of the many signs of weakness throughout the most recent strike. I believe it is fair to characterize the outcome as a loss – after five weeks, the government essentially starved teachers out, and the resulting contract was little different from what was on offer prior to the strike. The key issue of class size was not resolved. The signing bonus was a small fraction of lost wages. The wage gain was half a percent. Disappointingly, the contract term of six years gives government a free hand to pursue more corporate education reform with little room for teacher resistance. Many teachers understandably wonder if the strike actually improved our bargaining position and I suspect future strong strike mandates will be harder to attain. I also believe it is fair to say that this most recent strike shows significant weaknesses not only in the BCTF strategy, but also in the internal democratic decision making processes that influenced how the strike progressed.
While the BCTF is often lauded as one of the most militant unions in the province, and is even referenced by newly reformed teachers unions in the US such as the Chicago Teachers Union as a source of inspiration, the most recent strike calls into question whether that militancy is in fact on the wane. It is a pressing issue both to have a realistic assessment of the strike, and also to understand the processes within the union that have changed. Specifically, like the CTU, the BCTF is a union in which a left wing, ‘grass roots’ caucus sought and was able to win power of the union. But the trajectory of the union in the fifteen years since should act as a warning to the dangers of seeing electoral success within the union as the most important factor in influencing the union as a whole.
THE 2014 STRIKE
The 2014 strike began as work to rule campaign. Teachers refused to administer province wide tests, attend staff meetings, do lunchtime supervision. When teachers increased pressure with rotating full strike days, the government responded with what they called a partial lockout. Teachers’ pay was reduced by 10% and teachers were told to leave school property during non-instructional time. Frustrated with the lock-out, teachers chose to fully withdraw services in late June. The initial two weeks created limited pressure as the government was able to win a case at the labour relations board declaring secondary school marks an essential service and the BCTF instructed teachers to comply.
From the start of the walkout, the leadership of the BCTF viewed the strike as short term. At general meetings, the message was always that we would have a deal by the end of June. Early on, they had to acknowledge that the strike fund could only provide three days of strike pay. The union, in effect, constructed artificial deadlines that set specific expectations in teachers minds. Rather than prepare for the worst, the union promised the best. In tandem, the union, very early, both moderated its package, and called for mediation. To teachers, this was sold as a way to appear moderate and win parental support. But the leadership drastically underestimated the staying power and strategy of government.
No deal came in June and requests for mediation were rebuffed. In late august, government announced they would provide $40 a day childcare stipends for parents if the strike continued into the fall. While ridiculed by the BCTF leadership (and others) as a cynical ploy, there is no doubt that the tactic was effective in buying the government time to let teachers lose significant amounts of pay. By the middle of September, after three months without pay, many teachers were feeling very financially insecure.
Meanwhile, at a delegated provincial meeting, the union decided to remain on strike, but with no specific plan of action. The BCTF executive committee met during the first week of September, while the strike resumed, and decided to hold a membership vote on a call for binding mediation. Many teachers viewed this as a rather bizarre decision. It was fairly clearly simply a media tactic rather than a real engagement of members in decision making about the course of the strike. No further provincial meetings were called, and no mechanisms for input into the strike strategy were available. Unsurprisingly, the government rejected the proposal.
In the third week of September, five weeks into the strike, teachers were advised a deal was in process. There would be closed door round the clock meetings, but no details or information was shared. It was only after the deal was signed, and the vote completed, that Canada’s national main stream newspaper, the Globe and Mail, ran the exclusive story of how Canadian Labour Congress leader Hassan Yusuf orchestrated a private meeting between Christy Clark and BCTF president Jim Iker. The meeting produced the outlines of a very tepid deal – a way out for the BCTF leadership. Wages remained essentially the same as the government offer in June. Class size – the most important issue on the table – was addressed through a class size fund that effectively meant a repetition of the shell game that previous funds were known to be – money given in one form, but taken in another through reductions in core funding. On the contentious issue of how to deal with a court victory should the class size issue be subsequently won by teachers through an ongoing court battle, the government agreed only to re-open the issue prior to the term end of the agreement. Teachers winced as premier Christie Clark appeared on television gloating of the six year deal within the terms of the public sector mandate.
BC teachers are no strangers to job action. In 2005, teachers were on strike for two weeks, and in 2012, for three days. Yet despite this being our longest strike, it wasn’t our most militant or most confident. In 2005, teachers struck after government imposed a rollover contract through legislation. The 2005 strike was very high stakes and very remarkable, because one day into the strike the government went to court and received a contempt order. Teachers were in violation of the law. Yet teachers remained on the picket lines for two full weeks. Although the strike ended with mediation, teachers never asked for mediation. Instead, government used it as a way out of what because an increasingly impossible situation as the spectre and reality of solidarity strikes from other public sector unions loomed. The union was consistent in saying we would not hand over control of bargaining to a third party, and although we eventually did, we entered the mediation process in a far superior position. All of these factors led to what was arguably a moderate win in very difficult circumstances – $20 million for the teachers pension fund, significant wage increases for teachers on call, and the reintroduction of very limited class size limits via legislation, in the form of Bill 33. Moreover, the pressure from the strike I believe also impacted the subsequent negotiations, in 2006, which resulted in wage increases that outpaced much of the rest of the public sector.
INTERNAL UNION DEMOCRACY
The internal union processes in 2005 looked considerably different than those of 2014. The discussion of the need to defy back to work legislation began at provincial delegate meetings as early as 2004. Motions came from locals and individuals for actions to prepare the membership for a fight. Even the issue of a potential sell out from leadership was addressed by the delegates prior to the strike. By 2004, two other unions in the health care sector had had their strikes called off by union leaders after government intervention. Concerned that teachers should make this decision themselves, delegates successfully passed a motion that would require a full membership vote to end job action, not just to ratify a contract.
Sadly, in 2014, this new constitutional rule was misused to force an early vote on a deal when members had only hours to actually look at it. Frustration at the short time frame for ratification was widespread. This was combined with straight out misinformation. For example, the BCTF, in a message to all teachers and in the media, claimed that the new teacher fund would mean 850 new teaching positions. This was an unrealistic and misleading estimate. The BCTFs own research on the previous classroom ‘fund’ showed that it was a shell game. The new money simply replaced other money taken away through taxes on school boards such as medical plan premium increases, carbon taxes, and zero inflation budgets. In a subsequent research report, published six months after the end of the strike, the BCTF reported a net loss of 9 teaching positions despite the new education fund. Perhaps the epitome of the change in the BCTF was the way information was communicated to membership. Most membership meetings consisted of a video live-stream projected in a hockey arena to thousands of teachers directly from from BCTF President Jim Iker. This was hardly a mechanism to allow bottom up decision making, engagement or activism.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF RANK AND FILE ACTIVISM IN THE BCTF
Why was there such a change in tactics and strategy, and diminished democratic participation of the BCTF membership? The BCTF and its local unions have a long history of militancy. The very first teachers in the British empire to strike, were in Victoria, BC, in 1917. A province wide strike took place in 1971 to push for pension improvements. In 1987 teachers won full legal bargaining rights and in the late eighties and early nineties waged three fantastic rounds of bargaining with local school boards that won hundreds of provisions including class size limits. Teachers played a central role in the provincial solidarity movement of 1983. During this period of radicalism, two internal caucuses developed. Teachers viewpoint took a variety of progressive positions such as advocating for full unionization. Its composition was purposefully grassroots members and the caucus name was a reference to the viewpoint of teachers in opposition to that of administrators, who were in the union at the time and often held many of the union’s official positions. Viewpoint was counterposed to ‘TUF’ – teachers for a united federation, who arguably represented the status quo, or a more conservative and bread and butter unionism. Members of TUF tended to dominate the BCTF executive committee.
During the eighties and nineties, Teachers Viewpoint functioned as an effective, grassroots activist rank and file organization and organized on the convention floor for many democratic reforms in how the union functioned, as well as for a wide variety of social justice issues.
But a significant change took place in the mid-nineties that disrupted teacher bargaining. In the mid 1990’s, in response to the perceived successes of public sector unions in the late eighties, an NDP government imposed a scheme of provincial bargaining with the Public Education Labour Relations Act (PELRA). All BCTF locals, who up until this time had negotiated locally with school boards, were forced into a single provincial bargaining unit controlled by the provincial federation. While no doubt there were other factors in play in the erosion of grassroots organizing (this was, after all, the period of growing neoliberal attacks on all types of bargaining), this proved to be a death blow to the rank and file-ism that had developed within union locals who bargained directly with school boards. While rank-and-file organizing doesn’t depend on bargaining structures, it is, nevertheless, significantly more difficult to build rank-and-file networks amongst a membership of 40,000 across a massive geographic area than in a local of a thousand within a single city. A bargaining team of five chosen province wide is significantly more remote from the membership than one chosen from the local high school that teachers see in the staff room or at least in the local union hall.
The changes were immediately evident in the first round of provincial bargaining in 1998. This round was significant for two reasons. Firstly, it created a rift between the BCTF and other provincial public sector unions, because the BCTF accepted a government imposed zero wage mandate thereby setting the stage for other public sector unions to do the same. In exchange, teachers did negotiate province wide provincial class size limits. The second important feature of this bargaining round was the way it was conducted in closed door meetings directly between BCTF president Kit Krieger and government. This lack of democratic process and transparency lead to the defeat of the ‘TUF’ caucus and Kit Krieger lost the presidency.
At about the same time, Teachers Viewpoint shifted to a focus on electoralism within the union with the aim of winning control of the BCTF executive. Viewpoint members formed a new electoral caucus, Coalition, which ran a full slate for the executive positions.
Coalition managed to win the BCTF Executive for over a decade, from the late nineties, right up until the 2013 elections. Teachers Viewpoint, although formally in existence, now does little other than act as electoral support for Coalition. Through the 2000s, the position of the Coalition caucus, while remaining in favour of strike action, has consistently moved more and more towards alternative strategies in the face of an openly neoliberal government – namely the courts and support for the NDP in the hopes of changing government.
During this period, government used every tool available to smash the power of the BCTF. In 2001, it enacted essential service legislation which severely limits teachers right to strike. In 2002, it unilaterally removed the provincial class size limits from teacher collective agreements. In three rounds of bargaining (2001, 2004 and 2011) it used back to work legislation to end job action. Once, during this period, teachers stood their ground and stayed out on strike despite the imposition of fines for what was deemed “illegal” strike activity. These two weeks of militancy, in 2005, were in no small measure the result of many members of the Viewpoint caucus engaging in rank-and-file organizing to push for action regardless of the legal threats. Two decades of organizing and a militant orientation provided a coordinated group who argued successfully at provincial meetings for the necessity of action. The result was a strike that ended when government came begging to the union for mediation and the first contract with an openly hostile government that included some improvements.
Yet the 2005 strike did not fully address the single most fundamental issue – the reinstatement of class size limits. Instead of staying on the picket line in 2005 for as long as it took to win back class size, the BCTF pursued an extended court battle over the legality of the contract stripping. Initiated in 2002, the court battle has yet to be determinative now in 2015. Having won twice at the Supreme Court of BC, a recent loss at the BC Court of Appeals has meant a further request for appeal at the Supreme Court of Canada is in process. During this time, an entire generation of students have been through Kindergarten to graduation without class size limits in place.
Concurrently, the union has also focused heavily on a provincial electoral strategy. Although officially non-partisan, there are deep ties between the layer of leadership and staff in the BCTF and the NDP. Both David Chudnovsky, who beat Kit Krieger in the late nineties, and Jinny Sims, president during the 2005 strike, went on to represent the NDP in government as a provincial MLA and federal MP respectively. Couched as an issue oriented approach – make public education a vote determining issue – the millions of dollars appropriated from the strike fund over four provincial election campaigns did little to even convince the NDP to take pro-teacher positions in their platform. The provincial NDP has still never committed to reinstating the class size limits to the collective agreement nor even to ending the practice of publicly funding private schools.
In the lead up to the 2005 strike, there was a healthy debate within the union about what strategy was needed to regain class size language. The initial response in 2002, a one day strike immediately following the enactment of Bill 28 which stripped the language from the collective agreement, was often ridiculed, as failing the test to be the “first day” of action as opposed to the “one day” of action which it turned out to be. It was this sentiment, along with the grassroots organizing developed through the previous two decades, that enabled delegates to win the argument and votes in 2005 to stay out despite the union finding itself in contempt of court.
LESSONS FOR THE FUTURE
Looking back, 2005 was a high point. It was the organized work of militants to win arguments at the floor of general meetings. It was a layer of local activists within schools and local meetings who won a vast majority of teachers to the position that we should defy back to work legislation and a court order. Yet since that round of bargaining, despite a commitment to striking and remarkably high strike votes, the leadership has advocated caution. And the network of militant activists has all but disappeared.
With each successive strike, the union has exhibited more caution and less militancy. With no organized rank and file movement from below, militants did not win a plan of strike action in 2012 in response to Bill 22 when the government imposed a collective agreement. Instead, teachers went back to school and engaged in a frustrating and divisive work to rule campaign. And in the most recent strike, despite staying out for a significant period of time, teachers were instructed by the union to concede on practically every opportunity to create pressure. This included agreeing to abide by a Labour Relations Board order to submit final grades, refusing to picket third party sites such as school construction, failing to picket out CUPE members during the lunchtime lock-out, and failing to picket or disrupt provision of services to international students. Rather than look for ways to increase pressure on government, the union appeared desperate to end the strike as quickly as it could by seeking mediation. Moreover the union’s new style of “member engagement” was typified by the mass meetings in hockey arenas where several thousand teachers would sit silently as they watched president Jim Iker deliver a message via live-stream broadcast. As one teacher aptly put it, “I might as well be at home watching on my own TV”.
What are the lessons to be learned? For teachers in BC, it is that we will need a new grass roots rank and file movement both in the teachers unions and across public sector and private sector unions if we are to build the kind of actions and solidarity necessary to push back on neoliberalism. And for anyone in the labour movement, it is yet one more prescient example of why labour activists need to orient toward building rank and file momentum. This means working on campaigns that engage working members to get active to win improvements rather than focusing on what the leadership of our unions are or are not doing.