It's often said that politics is the art of the possible. Inversely, politics is also the art of the impossible, or of making your opponents feel like their vision simply can't be done.
To many supporters of improved funding for B.C. schools, it may have felt like Education Minister Peter Fassbender was adeptly applying the art of the impossible, or certainly the art of saying no, during his video communication to teachers on Friday.
The communication, in which Fassbender said he wanted "to speak to the teachers in this province," included a chart illustrating government's contention that the BC Teachers' Federation's current wage offer is "out of orbit" of what government refers to as the "affordability zone" for public sector contracts. According to Fassbender, this zone reflects an average of past deals that were reached with some, but not all, public sector professionals. It certainly reflects government spending priorities and the BC Liberal approach to bargaining with its employees.
Fassbender appeared emotional at one point in the communication, recalling a conversation with his grandson who was wondering if school would end two weeks sooner than the regularly scheduled summer break. Choking up, Fassbender said he explained to his grandson, a kindergartener, that the issue is not about time off from school but is instead about "finding a settlement that's appropriate for everyone."
Choked up or not, Fassbender seemed to be speaking to B.C. teachers, and to everyone else who supports adequate school funding, as a stern authority figure who means no when he says no. His answer is no, he seemed to say, because the family simply can't afford what you want. End of discussion. If only things were so simple.
An essential investment
First, if a family goes out and buys a new Lamborghini and then can't afford to put food on the table, the issue is not the affordability of food but the sensibility of family priorities. What the family in this scenario can't afford is a brand new sports car, just as B.C. can't afford tax giveaways at the expense of essentials like education. This is especially true when the government's giveaways force greater austerity onto the public, result in fewer social investments for everyone, and weaken the overall strength of the economy by increasing poverty and reducing mobility, equality, and opportunity for all.
Second, comparing public sector contracts to each other is more than just an apples to oranges comparison; it's a divide and conquer tactic. Putting aside the numbers game of who said what, each employee bargaining group has its own priorities that are reflected at the bargaining table. Not only does it seem that Fassbender is cherry-picking deals, leaving out recent deals that would push the average up, he's also pitting people against each other.
Third, by attempting to frame the issue as being about a pay increase, and by implying that the teachers' union stands in the way of a "raise" for teachers, Fassbender is not only saying no to teacher demands, but he's also attempting to weaken their resolve. At this point, teachers are essentially asking for a cost of living adjustment, which would help stop cutbacks in education by continuing to pay teachers competitive wages, helping the province recruit and retain highly qualified professionals to run our public education system.
Lower wages, in the form of cost of living reductions, erode the public school system's capacity to prepare students for the future. But rather than end wage rollbacks and cutbacks in supports for students, Fassbender insists that what the province really needs are luxuries, just like the family that buys a luxury sports car instead of essentials like food or housing. For the province, these luxuries include tax giveaways, such as a more than six per cent reduction in corporate tax rates since the BC Liberals came into office and the elimination of the corporation capital tax in 2009. British Columbia doesn't need a Lamborghini or tax giveaways. What we do need are sound investments in public education, including cost of living adjustments for teachers and improved supports for students.
We're all invested
Adding to the sense of the "impossible" is Vaughn Palmer's Saturday column in the Vancouver Sun, which argues that teachers lack leverage and the BC Liberals can withstand any fallout from a dispute over education funding. Palmer writes that "for all the expressions of support for teachers in the current labour dispute, the BC Liberals are not all that concerned about the outcry nor inclined to put much more money on the table."
Palmer misses the point about what really determines the outcome in a labour dispute, which is not leverage but power. This is to say that workers succeed at the bargaining table not through tactical leverage, but through unity and in self-recognition of their true value as employees. Palmer cites the outcome of the HST, which caused a firestorm of opposition that the BC Liberals muddled through. Here again, Palmer misses the point. True, the BC Liberals survived the HST, but the HST did not. Fortunately for teachers, ending cutbacks on education does not necessarily require getting the BC Liberals out of power. All that teachers need to do is reach a fair agreement. Certainly the union has the power to do this.
Employers need employees, since it is through the labour of skilled workers that outcomes are fulfilled. The public invests in public education. These investments are made in the form of our taxes. We then hire and pay teachers to do the work required to realize a return on our investment, which is paid back in the form of ample public benefits that include greater economic strength, increased social equality, and improved community health. We support public education because it's a worthwhile investment. We pay teachers a fair and competitive salary because qualified, skilled, and committed educators are an essential ingredient to realize the outcomes we need from public education.
When workers truly recognize their own value in this equation, they realize that reasonable demands will always manifest as abundantly possible. Good thing for B.C. teachers that the BCTF is proposing reasonable demands by asking that wages be adjusted essentially to be in line with inflation and that student support agreements be put back in place. Teachers know that the public expects value in return of our investments in the public school system. That's one reason why teachers are just as vested as the rest of us in reaching a balanced settlement, one that reflects the role of public investments, expected outcomes, and fair compensation in ensuring that public schools work for communities.
Public education provides enormous value to the overall economy. By remaining focused on a united message and through focus on achieving a fair and reasonable cost of living increase for teachers, and securing better learning supports for students, the final deal can reflect teacher's value to the economy. Teachers can achieve a fair and reasonable settlement because of their power as a united body of organized professionals and their value to the province as the providers of public education for British Columbians. Anything else sounds simply impossible.