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Will Teachers Leave BC Fed?

BCTF mulls strike – and staying in labour federation.

By Rex Weyler 14 Mar 2006 | TheTyee.ca
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In March 2003, the BC teachers voted in favor of a three-year trial affiliation with the BC Federation of Labour (BC Fed). The trial's over and today, at its annual general meeting, the BCTF will formally begin the process of deciding whether to or not to remain affiliated with the BC Fed - and by extension, the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC).

The decision, slated for a final vote in April, will have a lasting impact on public education in B.C.

The BCTF Board has recommended affiliation, and does so "without hesitation," according to BCTF president Jinny Sims. "The support of working people across Canada," she says, "will strengthen public education in B.C."

However, some teachers still grumble about what the strike actually achieved and the way Jim Sinclair of the BC Fed handled the final showdown.

A majority of parents appear to support the teachers and the BCTF - particularly in fighting for class composition and special needs assistance - but do not necessarily support trade union influence over BC education.

In the 1950s, the teachers withdrew from the affiliated trade unions and operated as a professional association. In the last two decades, teachers have been a union, but even the NDP has legislated teachers back to work.

In 2001, the Gordon Campbell Liberal government in Victoria roused the BCTF with legislation that restricted their right to strike by declaring education an "essential service." Thereafter, the government imposed a contract, froze salaries and removed hard-won advances in class-size limits and special needs assistance.

Six months later, the BCTF was back in the house of labour, with the trial affiliation.

Heat of the battle

On October 6 of last year, the government legislated a two-year extension on the expired contract. Faced with no collective bargaining agreement and a government that refused to talk to them, BC teachers went out on strike the next day.

The BC Fed and the public service employees (CUPE) supported the teachers with rotating strikes, and on October 17, 40,000 unionists walked off the job, virtually shutting down the city of Victoria, and then promised more. "Tomorrow, the Kootenays!" declared BC Fed president Jim Sinclair.

There remains little doubt that the power of the affiliated trade unions forced the provincial government to reopen talks with the teachers and to invite super-mediator, Vince "Mr. Fix-it" Ready, to the party.

On Thursday, October 20, Ready submitted a proposal for resolution, but then things took a turn that caught many by surprise. Sinclair publicly called off the Friday strikes and urged the teachers to review the mediator's plan. Some teachers took offense.

"We heard from the BC Fed before we ever saw the recommendations or heard from our own union," said Linda Watson, president of the North Vancouver Teachers' Association.

Sims confirms that some teachers interpreted Sinclair's remarks as "instructions" from the BC Fed and felt that calling off the rotating strikes was "premature."

Sims: 'A misunderstanding'

"The unionists that control the BCTF saw this as a sellout," says Mark Fetterly, a counsellor at Seycove Community School in North Vancouver. "This hardcore element is a small but very vocal part of all teachers in B.C. Many teachers saw this as a return to common sense and were relieved to be back in the classroom, in front of their students.

"However, not for one second do I think that Jim Sinclair speaks for teachers. "This is a self-serving fight for the BC Fed, adding teachers, another 38,000 fee paying members, to their fold."

"I didn't instruct the teachers to do anything," insists Sinclair. "I didn't endorse Ready's recommendations. I hadn't read them yet. We had achieved our goals. We forced the government to scrap their notion that they can tear up collective agreements, legislate people back to work and refuse to discuss it.

"You have to understand. Some of these supporting unions faced serious consequences for their strikes. There was no point in putting another group of workers in jeopardy once we had a mediated proposal for the teachers to review. It might have been better for the teachers to hear about this from the BCTF, but in the heat of a strike campaign, these things happen."

"It was a misunderstanding," says Sims. "Everyone was under tremendous pressure. The postal workers could have been suspended. The private sector unions faced huge fines. CUPE went ahead with their Friday action, anyway." At a November assembly of 300 teachers, CUPE president Barry O'Neill received a standing ovation, but Sinclair faced a tough grilling.

"Some were expressing disgruntlement," said Norm Nichols, Surrey resident, North Van teacher and chair of the BCTF affiliation task force, "and I was one. But Jim Sinclair can go no further than the affiliates allow him. Some teachers felt we might have earned more by sticking to our strike plan, but who knows? We got out of the job action with our head held high."

Deals and ducks

In the end, government and the BCTF agreed to accept the Vince Ready proposal, albeit with certain conditions by the BCTF on further talks. So what did the teachers win? Some money and a promise to consider talking about class size. The government ponied up $40 million to "harmonize" teacher salaries across B.C. and $40 million for the union disability fund. Another $20 million was allocated to reduce class-size and help special-need students. Teachers-on-call received a pay raise.

In simple terms: $100 million, plus the pay raise for subs, minus lost wages and the $500,000 that B.C. Supreme Court Justice Brenda Brown imposed on the BCTF for being in contempt of court.

And on class size and composition? Promises of talks.

The strike produced many measures of victory for teachers, according to 'What Have We Gained?', an undated article, posted on the BCTF website, written by the union's communications official Peter Owens.

Still, Sims says that the BCTF only accepted the proposal pending that the government provides firm class-size limits and support for special-needs students. "We need a guarantee in writing," says Sims.

So how is that going? After four months, Sims feels "frustrated" with the government and believes they are reneging on their promise. These "quality of education" issues remain far from agreement and the "Policy Roundtable," has made virtually no progress. The roundtable body consists of four teachers, two parents, six trustees and administrators and four government representatives, including Premier Campbell and Education Minister Shirley Bond. "They pretty much have their ducks in a row," says Sims.

A new round of government-BCTF negotiations began on March 1, and the teachers already plan another strike vote on June 30 and are threatening to walk out again in September if there is no new contract in place.

'We are employed professionals'

Before voting whether or not to strike, B.C. teachers must decide if they are going to remain affiliated with the Canada-wide trade labour movement. Their affiliation with the BC Fed costs them $600,000 per year. Word problem, class: If there are 34,000 members in the BCTF, how much does this cost the average teacher each month? Did you get $1.50? Good. You'll note this amounts to about six mocha-lattes per year, not a strong motivation one way or the other.

The real question is whether or not teachers see themselves as a professional association, like accountants or architects, or a union. "Yes, we are professionals," says Sims, "but we are employed professionals. We retain a degree of autonomy in the delivery of our services, but we are working people."

"Teachers represent a broad range of philosophies," says Linda Watson. "BCTF members are all over the map. Some never did support the strike. Others are strong unionists. But in 2002, we lost all the safeguards for quality of education. The BCTF, and the affiliation with the trade unions, may be the best way to win back class size regulations and services for special needs."

Some teachers, however, are not so sure big labour will help them or their students. "Affiliation is about economics and not about kids," says teacher Mark Fetterly. "I became a teacher because I help students. Teachers will be mortified to come to work one day to find longshoremen picketing. Affiliation makes teachers beholden to every other union in the Fed. Teachers are smart enough, organized enough and strong enough to deal with this government and any other government on our own."

'Insurance policy'

"In North Van," says Norm Nichols, "we had negotiated with the local school board in 1991 for special needs, mainstreaming and integration, class composition and class size. When the government stripped away our contracts, that was gone and we haven't won them back. This is the key to the fight we're having now. Our membership with the BC Fed over the last three years supplies good evidence that they can help us achieve our goals.

"Affiliation is our insurance policy," says Nichols. "We need other working people speaking on our behalf to be successful with a government that will gut quality of education programs. The support of the BC Fed was clearly a factor in the success of our last job action."

Traditionally, the BCTF does not make political donations. In recent elections, the BCTF has spent millions on its own campaigns criticizing the BC Liberals, but unlike most unions, they are not affiliated with the New Democratic Party. The BC Fed and CLC are affiliated with the NDP, and send block delegates to their convention. This poses a question for some teachers. "Affiliation puts us further into the Big Labour camp," says Fetterly.

BCTF polls show 61 percent of parents willing to support the teachers in another job action, 69 percent if class size and special needs issues are included in the demands. "Parents and teachers are natural allies," says Sims. "We're both looking out for the best possible education of our students and children."

Some parents may still wonder if the unions would actually prolong a job action to win more benefits for students. "Teachers have every right to fight for their needs," says Valerie Jenkinson, a parent and educator presently teaching adults, "but who is fighting for my rights in the educational system? Parents know that we have responsibilities in educating our children, but they need to be recognized."

Public pain

"The system downloads a lot of education onto the parents," says Jenkinson, "and for those families whose children struggle with learning challenges, more responsibility gets downloaded. Many diligent, caring teachers are out there doing things right, but we need to examine the teaching methods on a much broader scale."

When teachers - or any public service union - go out on strike, the pain intended for the government employer cycles through the public. Ferry and teacher strikes first hurt the public citizens, who become surrogate advocates, not necessarily willingly, applying secondary pressure on the government. Some may feel powerless in the situation, with no real bargaining rights until the next election.

"Most teachers are good - dedicated and skilled," says Joanne Tait, a college and corporate computer instructor with two teenagers, "but their union doesn't remove an unqualified teacher because it is there to protect the members. They should monitor their own ranks through the College of Teachers like other professionals do to keep up their standards and address complaints."

"Teachers could not fight for student rights without being organized," says Sinclair. "We've seen what happened to quality of education before the strike. The teachers are fighting to preserve good public education. The government's statements show that they want to privatize education. But we need good public schools to preserve the rights of working people and their children to get an education. Some people can afford to go out and buy special-needs education for their children, but most can't. We need to enshrine these services in our public system."

"In the current political climate created by the Campbell Liberals," says education advocate Patti Bacchus, "parents and teachers need to work together to protect public education from those with a privatization agenda. No one goes into teaching for the money - you have to believe in public education and love kids - which makes teachers very informed, key advocates for what students need."

"Teaching conditions correlate with learning conditions," says Baccus. "Smaller classes and more support workers benefit teachers and student. Teachers - and the BCTF - have been supportive of an inclusive public education system but they need adequate supports and learning conditions to make that work. Parents and the BCTF both need to demand additional resources like school psychologists, occupational therapists and speech therapists to support students in the classroom and help their teachers figure out what kids need to succeed."

Teachers will vote on affiliation in April.

Rex Weyler, who will be writing about education frequently for The Tyee, is a Vancouver journalist and the author of Greenpeace: How a group of Ecologists, Journalists and Visionaries Changed the World.  [Tyee]

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