Opinion

Three Labour Lessons from the Teachers' Strike

Latest round showed the power of solidarity, public support, and striking first.

By Tom Kertes 19 Sep 2014 | TheTyee.ca

Tom Kertes is an early childhood educator and experienced social movement organizer, with a passion for early childhood empowerment.

According to BC Teachers' Federation president Jim Iker, credit for moving forward in the public school strike goes to the "courageous stand that teachers took for the future of public education." Thanks to teachers, our public school system is stronger. And thanks to the BCTF and other unions, we've learned some valuable lessons about the positive role that unions can play in defending the rights of all workers and to ensure that public programs that benefit everyone remain strong.

Yesterday, teachers voted to pass the settlement reached earlier this week. It was certainly a hard-fought deal. While no settlement in a labour dispute is 100 per cent perfect for either side, in this round the government was finally forced to bargain with teachers. Teachers held the line and managed to get the BC Liberals to sit down and negotiate. This alone represents a huge victory, especially given the government's track record of bad faith negotiations with public school teachers.

The BC Liberals will want to claim victory here, but it's a bit of a stretch for Premier Christy Clark to do so when the problem was created by her government. It was teachers, not government, who stood up for public education by giving up weeks of pay and by standing the line, despite the uncertainties. Credit is also due to parents and students who supported teachers, who faced equal levels of uncertainty and stood up for public schools nonetheless.

The shortcomings of the deal are ones shared by most workers in the province. Not keeping up with inflation hurts teachers as well as other public and private sector workers. Nobody can continue to afford cost-of-living pay cuts, and it's a problem that all unions and their members need to tackle head on and together. Growing inequality, shrinking buying power, and the dismantling of public programs is hurting everyone but the one per cent.

Out of the latest round of public school bargaining, three lessons stand out. First, teacher unity and union solidarity made the difference. Second, the community supports public education, and people will back unions and political parties that stand up for popular public programs. Third, the best defence is offence. It's time to not just draw the line anymore, but to start moving the line forward.

Lesson 1: Union solidarity made the difference

Teachers and other unions had strong public backing throughout the dispute. But even with that backing, it wasn't until the final week of the dispute -- when unions combined forces to pony up more than $8 million in solidarity support -- that the government pulled back from the brink. This level of union solidarity sent a message to government that the labour movement won't be divided.

This proved to the government that it couldn't break the teachers' union by simply waiting teachers out. According to Paul Finch, treasurer of the BCGEU, solidarity is the foundation of how unions operate. Finch believes that in this instance, unions "were able to demonstrate in action, not just words, that we stand shoulder to shoulder with teachers and in support of public education."

As other unions made clear their commitment to back public education, teachers were also demonstrating their own unity by voting 99.4 per cent in support of binding arbitration. This vote indicated both a willingness on the union's part to reach a fair compromise, and also to hold the line. The vote told the government that teachers backed their union fully, maximizing the bargaining power of their negotiators.

Beyond providing financial and logistical support to the BCTF, BC Federation of Labour president Jim Sinclair also sent a signal that labour can join forces in a direct ways. A critical moment in the strike came when Sinclair was asked by reporters in a series of afternoon radio interviews about his position on growing calls for a general strike. Sinclair responded by keeping the option open, not ruling out a general strike but not calling for one either. This kept focus on the teachers' pickets but also added to the pressure on the government.

The mere possibility of united labour power in the form of a general strike, especially when core democratic institutions such as public education are at stake, provides an important balance of power to protect the rights and interests of all working people. The hint of a general strike is enough to move an obstinate government, especially one that may be tempted to overreach its own power.

Lesson 2: People will back unions and parties that stand up for progressive programs

From day one, teachers said that they were seeking fair compensation for teachers and better supports for students. This framed the issue around the funding and quality of public education, especially in terms of its value in providing education on an equitable basis to all students. Unlike for-profit and other special-interest private schools, public schools exist solely to provide education to everyone.

As articulated in the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child, every child has a human right to education that is "provided on the basis of equal opportunity." The public school system is uniquely capable of delivering on this promise, and that's one of the many reasons why public schools are so popular with the public. The popularity of public schools is one of the reasons why so many community members supported the teachers in the dispute.

Pots and pans protests and other grassroots actions led by parents and students of all walks of life connected support for public school teachers with support for public education. By sticking to its message that class size and class composition impacts student learning, the BCTF successfully galvanized support for its cause.

Once rumours over vouchers and concerns about the longer term strategy of the BC Liberals started to circulate more widely, community supporters of public education raised the alarm ever louder. And the public responded.

The BC Liberals were their own worst enemy on this front. By concocting a $40-a-day voucher-like payment scheme and seeming to do anything to lengthen the dispute rather than resolve it, many supporters of public schools (myself included) became deeply concerned about a possible crisis moment that the government was creating in order to impose radical measures on the public education system.

Given the government's track record of bad faith bargaining, it was certainly plausible that as the strike continued the BC Liberals might be planning to make a surprise move against the public school system. This raised the stakes even more, drawing welcome support from a broader range of public school supporters.

Lesson 3: Offence is often the best form of defence

The final lesson comes from the BC Liberals, who demonstrated that their highly-disciplined and strategic approach to politics can work at many levels. Rather than defend where they stand today, in terms of continued defunding and possible privatization of public schools, the BC Liberals are always on the attack.

By characterizing the teachers' union as greedy and unreasonable, the BC Liberals strengthened their base and forced public school supporters into defensive mode. The government's framing of education as a "service" for "clients" that is best delivered through "choice" has been advanced throughout the dispute, weakening the public schools even more.

Unapologetic to a fault, Premier Clark turned the dispute into a reason to undermine the school system, a system that she continues to characterize as "dysfunctional" and broken. Proponents of public education worry what remedy she has in store if she can get her way.

One thing is certain. Had Adrian Dix and the BC NDP won the last election, the teachers' strike would not have happened in the way it did under the BC Liberals. The support that the NDP caucus demonstrated for teachers, especially once the polling shifted clearly in their favour, tells a very different story than that told by the BC Liberals. But voters didn't know this at election time, because the BC NDP seems better at hiding its true convictions than at presenting a contrasting vision that speaks to the values and aspirations of the people of this province.

In contrast to the BC Liberal strategy of proudly putting forward its vision for the province, progressive politicians are often too wary to take a stand on what really matters to them and their supporters. A powerful lesson from the strike is that B.C. needs a progressive party in government, not only in opposition. The BC NDP did stand with teachers and for public education, and does have a powerful platform to help frame and build support around the issues that really matter to the people of the province. But it's time for those to sharpen, and become clearer.

With yesterday's vote, teachers said that they are willing to do what's required to ensure that our public schools continue to work for the benefit of everyone in the province. Having demonstrated courage and commitment, they may hold their heads high. Ending the strike and returning to work does not on its own fix the education mess created by the BC Liberals. But it does create an opportunity for hope. Public schools are at the heart of a strong and fair economy, and that's why we all owe a great debt to the teachers for everything they've done to defend our schools.  [Tyee]

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