Private schools hoard profits: Picket pay an upgrade for striking instructors

By Daniel Tseghay

Since Aug. 2, members of locals 9 and 11 of the Education and Training Employees’ Association (ETEA) have been on strike over wages, unpaid work, and workplace surveillance. They made the decision to strike after negotiations broke down.

Local 9 represents private instructors at Vancouver English Centre (VEC) in Vancouver and Local 11 represents instructors at Hanson International Academy in New Westminster.

“I have people on the picket line who are making more money on strike at 100 dollars a day than they are working, which is sad,” says ETEA Local 9 President Kim Fissel.

“Strike pay is supposed to see you through the strike. It’s not supposed to be an improvement to what you normally make,” she says.

Local 9 has been unionized for 19 months and has been in negotiations for about 15 months. Their demand for better wages stems from a city living wage of $20.64 per hour, for a 40-hour work week.

Salary costs a drop in the bucket for Hanson International Academy
ETEA Local 11 instructors on strike.
ETEA Local 11 instructors on strike.

ETEA Local 11 President Anthony Fawcett says that Hanson International Academy receives $9 million in annual revenue, and only 3 per cent of that is spent on salaries, as reported by the Socialist Worker. The local’s wage demands would increase this figure by 2-3 per cent, he states.

Hanson, affiliated with Cambrian College, offers college level courses, yet Hanson teachers earn significantly less than teachers at Cambrian. Hanson teachers are also demanding they have copyright over their teaching materials, with the school saying that it owns lesson materials instructors have created themselves.

VEC teachers fight against unpaid work, iris scans, and unequal pay

Fissel, a teacher at VEC for 4 years, has earned the same wage, $20/hour, since she started, despite being told there would be a review and a potential increase after her first year.

VEC teachers, however, work an average of 27 hours per week, with only a few teachers earning a living wage. According to the union, tuition fees have increased an average of 15 per cent since 2012, the time of the last wage increase. They argue that the employer could easily raise wages.

“Teachers wages have actually gone down,” says Fissel. “When I started it was $20 per hour. Someone who came on 3 months after me is getting paid $18 per hour.”

Teachers are also asking to be paid for the work they do outside the classroom. “I’m not paid for any of the classroom preparation I do and I have been given classes with next to nothing for preparation,” Fissel says. “I’ve lost a number of breaks and lunches spending time with students, or even after school. We’ve had to mark through our lunches because you have to get marks in on time or you’re penalized.”

Based on a survey teachers initiated, they found that they’re doing somewhere between 10 and 20 hours of unpaid work per week. This includes marking, talking with students, creating curricula from scratch, and, in Fissel’s case,setting up facebook groups so students can keep in contact with her.

Another demand calls for equal wages for teachers of one of VEC’s programs: Skills 4 Kids, an ESL program for the children of VEC students.

“Our students are adults but often times they’ll travel and they’ll have their kids with them,” says Fissel. “it’s very expensive to find babysitting in Vancouver.”

ETEA Local 9 members on strike at the Vancouver English Centre.
ETEA Local 9 members on strike at the Vancouver English Centre.

“They can’t always get them into school because they’re coming up in the summer. We have people with the same qualifications as myself, with an ESL certificate and a degree, and they’re being paid $12 per hour. They are paid $12 to $14 per hour for doing almost the same work I’m doing, if not more work because it’s with young children.”

VEC teachers have also raised serious concerns about being scrutinized and controlled by their employer. The owner wanted to conduct iris scans 4 times a day – when teachers arrive, go for lunch, return, and leave for the day.

The stated reason was to prevent time theft, but Fissel questions that. “If I’m not in my class, my students will let the director know,” she said.

It was actually this issue that brought teachers together to unionize in the first place, following union-busting by the employer. A teacher who hosted an organizing meeting was fired after working for VEC for 13 years.

She was reinstated with the help of a lawyer brought in by the Federation of Post-Secondary Educators of BC (FPSE), and the course teachers were able to avoid iris scans.

However, “the Skills 4 Kids teachers were made to do it and they were still scanning at the time of the strike,” according to Fissel.

One of their demands is to scrap the scans for all teachers.

Despite all these concerns, Fissel felt negotiations with the employer were going well. With the help of a mediator, they were getting somewhere on the iris scans and on wages, although the employer would not agree that teachers should be paid for preparation work. It would not support equalizing wages for Skills 4 Kids teachers.

The employer walked away from negotiations, forcing the teachers to go on strike.

Students show support for teachers

Fissel notes that many students have been very supportive of the strike. “We were on the picket line for four days and all of the students showed up,” Fissel says.strikingteachers

“One student brought a ton of pizzas. One brought donuts. They give us hugs. On my facebook I’ve got messages from all over the world saying ‘I’m with you. You’re doing the right thing.’”

Students are taking their concerns to the employer.

“There are tons of pictures of students with us, holding signs, chanting with us. Students have gone into the school to ask why the owners have not spoken with the teachers.”

“In their opinion, the teachers are the school.”

And so the picket line goes on, with students, representatives from the BC Federation of Labour and the BCGEU, among others, joining locals 9 and 11.

“It can be scary, especially when it’s your first strike, like it is for me.  Especially when it’s your livelihood, to say ‘you can’t do this,’” says Fissel. To say, “You can’t treat me like this. You need to respect me. You need to respect the union.”

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