Opinion

Cheers to BC's Teachers, for 100 Years of Wealth Creation

Together you've taught millions of students, fought for public ed, and shown solidarity every step of the way.

By Jim Sinclair, 16 Mar 2016, TheTyee.ca

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Jim Sinclair paid tribute to the BC Teachers' Federation at its 100th annual general meeting commemoration this week.

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[Editor's note: This week more than 700 teachers gathered at the BC Teachers' Federation annual convention. The convention marked the 100th anniversary of the union. During a celebration of the anniversary Jim Sinclair, honourary BCTF member and former President of the B.C. Federation of Labour, paid tribute to the union. What follows is an edited version of his speech.]

Thank you so much for the opportunity to be here today. It is truly an honour for me.

They're all here -- in this room today. All crammed in here with you.

George Lister is here, with the other delegates to the very first annual general meeting of the first teacher's federation in Canada in 1917.

Mary Ellen Smith, the first woman elected to office in British Columbia in 1918 -- and a teacher -- is here. She ran on a platform of rights for women and children.

The Victoria teachers walking the picket line in 1919 during the first strike by teachers are here. The strike was not only the first in B.C. but the entire British Commonwealth.

The teachers who served on the BCTF pension committee that fought and won pension legislation for teachers in 1929 -- they're here.

Harry Charlesworth, the first union president, is here with the delegates who voted to launch a campaign against the KIDD report, which wanted to cut teachers pay by 25 per cent and charge kids for public school in 1932.

Hilda Cryderman is here with the delegates to the 1954 convention who had the courage to elect the first woman president of the organization.

And there are thousands more here today with you. Thousands who sacrificed, sweated and struggled year after year to build this organization.

Who believed in their hearts that a better, fairer and more equal world was only possible with the best public education system.

Who believed that solidarity was the only path to better lives for teachers.

"But Jim, you've lost your mind," you say. "We don't see these people!"

The reason you cannot see them is because they are you.

You might think that car or plane or SkyTrain brought you here. But you were really brought here by 100 years of history.

And what an incredible, difficult, inspiring, frustrating, uplifting and beautiful journey it has been.

Real wealth creators

Do you know what you have done? So many incredible things.

And in my short time I want to touch on a few of them.

Every day, since the first school was opened in 1851, teachers have been transforming generations of children and young adults.

You have collectively taught millions of British Columbians the skills necessary to think critically, to participate in democracy, and to pursue further learning to obtain jobs and careers to raise their families and build the province.

And you do that by respecting the needs, desires and challenges of every single student. What a job.

I often hear from people who say the private sector creates the wealth in British Columbia. And the public sector takes the wealth.

It's almost always said with a tone that really means public sector workers are a drain on the economy.

But isn't millions of British Columbians with the skills to build the economy and participate in community life not the greatest wealth we have ever created?

Let's set the record straight: your sisters and brothers over the last 100 years have been responsible for the creation of more wealth than any other single group in the province.

After all, are not intelligent human beings the most valuable part of our province?

And like a clock that ticks forever, you continue to do this every day. By the time the little girl or boy who entered kindergarten this past September graduates 12 years from now, you will have given another million students the foundation they need to survive in a tougher and tougher world.

A job well done.

Always a fight

From the very beginning, the leaders of the BCTF understood the job was two-fold.

First, fight for public education.

Second, fight for the welfare of the teachers who provide it.

Egerton Ryerson, one of the founders of public education in Canada, said it well: "On the importance of education generally we may remark, it is as necessary as the light -- it should be as common as water, and as free as air... If total ignorance be a bad and dangerous thing, every degree of knowledge lessens both the evil and the danger."

I have always said that public education was how working people realized the dreams they have for their children to have a better life.

You understood that public education was the great equalizer, and the fight to build and protect it has been part of the DNA of this organization from the beginning.

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Teachers strike in Vancouver, 2012. Photo by popeye logic in Your BC: The Tyee’s Photo Pool.

Picture this: It's 1932 and in Victoria a strong business lobby is demanding massive cuts to spending.

Under pressure, the government agrees to an economic review of government spending and appoints business leaders to do it.

Their report recommends massive cuts to government spending. The hardest hit is education.

Enough of this free education -- make all children 14, 15, and 16 pay!

Too much democracy -- kill all the school boards!

Higher education? Only the rich need that -- cut all funding to the province's only university!

And last but not least -- cut teachers' pay by 25 per cent!

What does the federation do? What you have always done when public education is under attack.

You launch a major public campaign to defeat the report.

A special committee of teachers studies the report and writes a response rejecting it. The press is informed and a special issue of the Teacher magazine is produced.

All that was missing was the Twitter response and the Facebook postings.

Leading the fight in the public was the president of the union, Harry Charlesworth. His statements went right to the point -- this was not just an attack on teachers but the very right of working people to send their children to school.

The report, he said, was "solely in the interests of the moneyed classes in the province and engineered as a calculated attempt to set up a class barrier as far as education is concerned."

Led by the BCTF and UBC professors, the government rejected the findings of the report and in the next election the people of the province defeated the government.

Eighty years on

More than 80 years later, the same backward view of the world exists. Today, the right wing wants privatization and commercialization. Public schools are seriously underfunded.

And 80 years later, in the fine tradition of the federation, it is the teachers of this province who continue to lead the fight for properly funded public education.

It is the teachers who have sacrificed time and time again -- walking the picket lines to win back class size and composition language that was illegally stripped from the contract.

It is the teachers who are heading to the Supreme Court to demand the government return the language and the resources taken from their collective agreement.

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Teachers rally in Vancouver in June 2014. Photo by Kristian Secher.

It is the federation that is admired from coast to coast for its unrelenting commitment that every human being in this province has a right to a decent quality education no matter what challenges they face or how much money their parents have.

Moments I won't forget

Remember: you have always been part of the broader labour movement.

While you embraced your professionalism, as you should, you have always embraced solidarity with other unions and working people in general.

As a young trade unionist who believed in solidarity, I knew that any time I would show up on any picket I would find teachers there as well.

You were not members of the BC Federation of Labour, but in 1983 when the provincial government launched a broad side attack on everything from human rights to workers' rights, you joined the battle and, in fact were leaders in the fight.

In 2003, your members voted to join the BC Federation of Labour.

In 2005, you stood up to the government and the courts when you refused to end your strike.

I will never forget when you voted to continue illegal strike action -- nobody ever did that -- and the vote was higher than the first one to take legal strike action.

Your courage inspired the labour movement to raise what solidarity means to a whole new level.

Thousands of workers shut down their worksites, risking their job and giving up their pay, to show their solidarity with the teachers of British Columbia.

Your victory, with the solidarity of the labour movement, set the stage for the next round of bargaining in the public sector when all unions got decent collective agreements.

Two images among many stand out for me.

In the first, you voted for the second time to stay on illegal strike, and the reporters headed for the picket line to find teachers who disagree. They asked a young teacher if the BCTF is forcing her to be there on the line, and she responded so simply, yet profoundly: "I am the BCTF."

In the second, teachers are marching and one is carrying as sign that simply says, "Thank you trade unions"

Actually, it is the working people of B.C. who need to say thanks to all of you.

For everything you have done for all of us, for all of those 100 years, and everything you continue to do every day to make this a better province.  [Tyee]

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