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March 21, 2012

Walk Out! How BC Teachers can defeat Bill 22

by Ian Weniger

Walk Out!

It's not an overstatement to describe Bill 22 as the Education Improvement Act if you are one of the one percent. But the title is a travesty for the 99% who need public education as a teacher regulated quality public good.

Bill 22 bans all strike or job action until September, reinstates the contract stripping from 2002 (a process that was ruled unconstitutional), and directs a unilateral mediator to force concession of basic union rights. There will, potentially, be no limits on class size or composition, no restrictions on who can teach, and no rules on where and when teachers will teach.

The goal of this government is to de-legitimize public education, encourage parents to buy private education for their children, and to attack all unionized workers who stand in the way of the neo-liberal agenda.

To fight Bill 22 we need to know what we are fighting for, how we got into this situation as a professional union, and how, like 2005 when we walked out, we can fix it by walking out again.

Smaller Classes Matter

BC's teachers have been and continue to be mostly female, working with subtle and overt sexist assumptions about nurturing professions being significantly different from jobs done by other workers. After more than a century of teacher education, the basic expectation of society is that a teacher can be left alone with a class of thirty children for anywhere from one to six hours every day for the school year - and successfully manage every students' learning progress.

This individualism is isolating, much like being a single parent, and yet this isolation continues to be glamorized and romanticized. In reality, we need and seek out a great deal of assistance, but the collective activity necessary to truly support teaching and learning never erases the fact that at the end of the day, a teacher is on her own to get her job done.

This job is getting harder as described by Paul Kershaw, UBC Professor, as the under 45 generation with children is being squeezed by less job security and pay. Kershaw reports that 30% of kids in kindergarten ‘struggle to hold a pencil or follow instructions … - all age appropriate tasks.” The consequence is that one third fewer children achieve marks sufficient to go on to post-secondary education. $10 a day public daycare and smaller classes would go a long way to resolve the social problems teachers are expected to compensate for with less pay and less control over the classroom (Vancouver Sun, March 20, 2012).

BC Teachers: The pros and cons of a “union of professionals”

The BCTF arose in 1917 as a body to support the professional needs of thousands of teachers in various schools across a huge province. While we once bargained in our individual districts for wages and working conditions, the BCTF grew to become a lesson aids distributor, professional development provider, bargaining consultant, benefit provider, and certifying body. Principals were also members. This had an influence on BCTF development as an organization with unprecedented worker control, even the illusion of militancy.

Local bargaining was massively successful due to the local accountability of a District to its community to not close schools in light of reasonable demands to support children. The fact that a province-wide body like the BCTF never had to organize a strike in more than a few districts at a given time for seventy years was a political and financial advantage, but it has become a liability.

In 1988 the Vander Zalm Socreds moved to end the role of the BCTF as the certifying agent, placed principals into management, forced the BCTF to choose between being a professional association or a union, and created teacher-free Parent Advisory Committees to replace traditional parent-teacher associations. The BCTF struck twice, once with a one day general strike, but failed to stop the bills. Members voted almost unanimously to become a union and to keep its status as a professional association. Local bargaining remained successful but there were very uneven provisions across the province.

Decades of successful local bargaining experience were challenged in the 1990s. The New Democratic government centralized public sector bargaining, as recommended in the 1994 Korbin Report. This centralized model was patterned on the Swedish idea that governments would compensate unions for central economic control (often wage controls) by job security and working condition improvements.

As the BCTF had supported the NDP in its successful election, we were rewarded with provincial contracts which introduced two critical improvements in working and learning conditions that we fight to keep today: maximum class size and composition, and staffing formulas.

The NDP government agreed to cap the number of students in any class in grades K-3 at 20, grades 4-7 at 24, and grades 8 -12 at 30. This meant that principals could not create oversized classes, on pain of fines to be paid by the offending district. In addition, all classes could only include a maximum of three students with special needs identified in an IEP (an independent assessment). These over-weighted classes were also subject to fines.

Provincial contracts also established guaranteed minimum staffing per school for specialized non-enrolling positions, such as teacher-librarians, ESL teachers, Speech-language pathologists and Learning Assistance teachers. A formula would provide one such position per a certain number of students, depending on the specific need.

In 2001 centralized bargaining with the new Liberal government (who had won 77 of 79 seats) was a disaster. Education minister Christy Clark proposed stripping the BCTF contract of all classroom regulation. The BCTF was faced with its first real province-wide confrontation with the employer.

Our leaders' response was a disastrous work-to-rule campaign. Members policed members to the effect that an entire generation of teacher activists was burned out. When the Liberals imposed a concessions settlement in the winter of 2002, as well as a strike ban, teachers went on a one-day symbolic strike and a court challenge was pursued. While Christy Clark was unable to wrest democratic control of the BC College of Teachers from teachers that spring, demoralization struck hard as year upon year of cuts added to swollen classrooms that were not challenged.

In October 2005, as negotiations dragged and a strike vote was scheduled, the government, with a fresh if reduced election mandate, decided to ban that strike as well. The BCTF leadership's response was to suddenly advance the strike vote and defy the no-strike law. Members voted overwhelmingly to walk out, and BCTF's seven-day illegal strike was supported by thousands of ordinary people visiting picket lines with food, newspapers, and messages of support. The strike was like a beacon of hope that someone would stand and fight the government and that people would stand with us.

In the end, teachers were legislated back to work in Bill 33, but this time with substantial gains from an independent mediator, Vince Ready. His report gave teachers the right to consultation for oversized classes and the right to refuse for elementary staff. We got a signing bonus of thousands of dollars, several changes in contract language, and the addition of hundreds of new teaching positions in the case of certain overcrowded classes.

This strike was, in a way, the most successful in BCTF history.

Yet most teachers are not connected to the BCTF except by Bill 33 “consultations” which are mostly ineffectual. In spite of many teachers being hired to alleviate overcrowding, the bill permitted Districts to adhere to an average maximum class size over all its schools that were under the legal class size limit. This practice means that many classes can be packed if principals also create enough undersized courses which happen to balance the overflowing classes. Union officials invented the term “overage” to refer to those classes which were “over the average”.

Hundreds of these overages have been presented to teachers and forced through over five consecutive autumns. Teachers, overwhelmed with monitoring and trying to fight overcrowding look to their locals; but the union then has no time for anything else, like keeping members informed about their rights and speaking out on public education on a local level beyond elections or parent interviews.

So, in 2011 most teachers haven’t been kept informed of the deliberately drawn-out negotiations, and the unprecedented attacks on seniority, posting and filling of jobs, evaluation, grievance and other basic rights. The BCTF has relied on a passive communications strategy: on their bimonthly TEACHER magazine and flyers produced on demand, most stale by the publication date. Attempts to link all members online are inconsistent across locals and still having growing pains. The reality has been that most teachers have been isolated to dwell on the demoralizing lessons of back-to-work laws, the myth that strikes only save the government wages and the massive teacher-bashing over irrelevant contract details.

Why teachers have the power to stop Bill 22 NOW

Public education should be everyone's business, but few seem to be able to save it from government mischief. BC's parents have always been supportive of schools in small groups, but the PACs at every school are advisory bodies that were set up specifically to stop teachers from having frequent connections with parents. As a result, most PACs raise a little money for school resources that should be paid for by tax dollars and not charity events or gambling revenue. At worst, the provincial BCCPAC body, which receives a quarter million dollars a year from the government, consistently attacks the BCTF for defending teachers.

BC voters have witnessed the de-funding of public schools over two general elections since the 2002 contract stripping, and many angry letters and calls to editors and MLAs were publicized. At the district level, some trustees have attempted to fight the de-funding of public education, mostly with inconsistent results.

School boards are legally required to balance their budgets and are banned from running deficits. Trustees, who defy this law, can and have been removed from office - and have been replaced with ministry appointees who listen only to Victoria and make the required cuts. So school boards juggle budgets to make do with ever-increasing shortfalls, even in districts where student enrolment is increasing, rather than risk their careers and their schools to direct government supervision.

On a provincial level, the electorate returned the Gordon Campbell government to power with slightly reduced majorities in 2005 and 2009. The New Democrats, BC's official political opposition, makes a great deal of noise about the terrible state of the K-12 education system, but refuses to this day to support a policy that is clearly different from the government.

The NDP, then as now, laments contract stripping but refuses to commit to restoring contract language, let alone re-investing a decade's worth of funds in public schools. While Carole James never spoke at a BCTF rally and actually condemned teachers for defying the law in 2005, Adrian Dix did speak to teachers in March. However, Dix did not identify Bill 22 as the end of public schools as we know them, but simply encouraged a negotiated settlement, knowing full well that the government had no interest in good-faith bargaining.

2005: Walking Out

BC's students have been watching the adults trying to sort out their education, and noticed something about politics. When parents and politicians have acted to stop education cuts, they seem to get no positive response from government. When teachers do even the smallest thing in a job action, however, government reacts negatively and the media tends to follow. So it was students who staged walkouts and rallies across BC in explicit support of teachers and the BCTF two weeks ago.

Our students found attention from the government and the media; the government claimed that the BCTF was manipulating students. But the media acknowledged that these youth were articulate, organized and engaged in the world. This is both heartening and embarrassing. Teachers support learning not only to compete but to show solidarity, and for some students to put that learning into practice shows that we're doing our jobs. But that children had to step up where grownups have failed should force us to become more engaged in defending public education.

So this leaves workers like us to stand up. Teachers need to walk out of every school to defend our students, our society and our jobs. The BCTF did this in the fall of 2005 and closed every school in BC for seven days. This action was a beacon for people across the province to stand up against the government who had won an election in the spring even after a near province wide strike to support hospital workers.

But the BCTF was only supported symbolically by the BC Federation of Labour. At no time did the federation president Jim Sinclair promise that the half-million unionized workers he represented would come out on strike to back teachers' right to bargain fairly. Sinclair's public declaration on day six, that teachers would vote on a mediator's report, and thus end the strike, when the BCTF had made no such announcement, was a terrible betrayal that we have yet to recover from. By the end of the week, BCTF members were being told by local union leaders to vote our consciences. Our presidents seemed unwilling to tell us to vote yes to end the strike because they couldn't support surrender, and they couldn't tell us to vote no and remain on strike because the strike had lost momentum.

Why we still need to Walk Out

So in 2012, teachers have few choices left. Phase One's work-to-rule was a failure, though the three day walkout was inspiring. A further work-to-rule, like refusing extra-curricular activities, will be ineffective. The legacy of 2001's failed “time-to-teach” campaign must not be repeated. We can't afford to burn out another generation of union activists. So we either strike now at the end of March when spring break has ended in most districts, or we strike at the beginning of the new school year in September, after the cooling-off period.

Bill 22 is designed to smash our locals and the BCTF, and thousands of teachers will be subject to transfer, reduction of hours, or termination at the sole discretion of their principals. Members will be greatly tempted to wonder at the value of a union with no power in their schools.

If the BCTF is going to have any value to teachers right now, our leadership must realize that, at the very least, their pay cheques will be extinct once Bill 22 is in place. The entire union structure is under far, far greater threat by a vanishing membership than all the fines the government can threaten.

As scary as Bill 22 sounds, teachers should put individual fines in perspective. The reality is that the government knows the cost of collecting fines from thousands of people is very difficult. The government wants to intimidate every teacher into compliance with the law, even though it has been found illegal in a previous form. We must not let this threat undo our resolve to save public education.

The government will come after the BCTF first, and is trying to scare the leadership out of strike action by threatening their relatively comfortable jobs at the federation office. Of course our leaders are trying their best, but they need to know that teachers are paying them to defend us.

Teachers can defeat Bill 22, but only with a full walkout. We must stay out until the entire bill is repealed, including the fines, the phony mediation process, and class size and composition increases. And we must stay out until the government is prepared to bargain with an independent negotiating team that will not be able to rely on back-to-work legislation to get what they want.

Either we fight now or we will return to the dark ages of public education. The public is on our side, other union workers entering bargaining, like the nurses, are on our side. They--and our communities--will support us if we really lead the way.