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The New School War

What's at stake in the teachers' strike.

By Crawford Kilian 13 Oct 2005 |

Crawford Kilian was born in New York City in 1941. He was raised in Los Angeles and Mexico City, and was educated at Columbia University (BA '62) and Simon Fraser University (MA '72). He served in the US Army from 1963 to 1965, and moved to Vancouver in 1967. He became a naturalized Canadian in 1973.

Crawford has published 21 books -- both fiction and non-fiction, and has written hundreds of articles. He taught at Vancouver City College in the late 1960s and was a professor at Capilano College from 1968 to 2008. Much of Crawford's writing for The Tyee deals with education issues in British Columbia, but he is also interested in books, online media, and environmental issues.

Reporting Beat: Education, health, and books

Crawford's Connection to BC: Though he was born in New York City, one of Crawford's favourite places is Sointula, a small town off the northeast coast of Vancouver Island.

Twitter: @crof

Website: H5N1

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Almost exactly 20 years ago, I published a book called School Wars, about the bitter political battles fought in the early 1980s. As the BC teachers' strike completed its second illegal day, I got out my own book and revisited a time very much like today.

The social conditions of 1983, however, were very different. BC had been staggered by a recession for two years, with overall unemployment at 15 percent. For workers aged 20 to 25, it was 22 percent. Frightened voters had attacked teachers and government workers as lazy, good-for-nothings living off tax dollars, and the Socreds, newly re-elected that spring, took the hint.

Old-timers can remember the revolution imposed by the Bill Bennett Socreds on July 7, 1983. It was announced with a flurry of bills that ended school districts' local control, increased class sizes (and therefore teacher layoffs), and imposed provincial control over budgets and teachers' salaries.

Teachers weren't the only targets. The Socreds abolished the Human Rights Branch, repealed the Human Rights Code, and limited compensation for victims of discrimination. Bill 2 threatened to remove government employees' right to bargain job security, promotion and other working conditions. Bill 26 removed labour standards in job safety, and tenants lost the services of the Rentalsman, who had resolved countless disputes.

BC has rarely seen a stormier summer and fall. Twenty-five thousand protesters gathered at the legislature late in July, and in August the old Empire Stadium held 40,000-including firefighters and police who marched onto the field to a standing ovation. In mid-October, 60,000 people marched outside the Socred convention in Vancouver, organized by "Operation Solidarity."

A general strike?

By October 1, a general strike seemed a real possibility, and by the end of the month it actually began, with the BC Teachers' Federation leading the charge. The plan was to escalate the strike until everyone was out-private sector as well as public sector unions-with consequences no one could anticipate.

In the event, Jack Munro of the International Woodworkers of America, flew to Kelowna and struck a deal with Bill Bennett that ended the strike. But 1983 left deep scars in BC's education system and created a permanent estrangement between teachers and government.

Munro's deal killed Bill 2, and offered teachers some promises that were broken in weeks. But the entire education system was furious with the Socreds. School trustees lost all power; ever since, they have been essentially a rubber stamp. They take the money Victoria chooses to send them and catch flak for making inevitable cuts in programs. BC's school superintendents, a famously tactful group, ripped the government to shreds in a widely circulated memorandum.

Teachers as scapegoats

BC nearly came apart at the seams in the fall of 1983 because working people, including teachers, saw themselves losing all control over their jobs. They saw the government, their ultimate employer, cynically using them as scapegoats while destroying the effectiveness of education and government service.

The effort finally failed. While the Socreds staved off a general strike, and the unions were shaken, Bill Bennett resigned in 1985 and let Bill Vander Zalm lead Social Credit into oblivion. In the school wars of the 1980s, nobody won.

A generation later, the Liberals (enriched with some old Socreds) are trying to fight and win that war for good.

They did pretty well in 2001 and 2002, when they tore up collective agreements and withstood the unions' protests. Re-elected this year, just after a battle with the Hospital Employees' Union, they clearly had unfinished business: to break the teachers, and then to break the other public-service unions.

The end of bargaining

By imposing a new contract on the BCTF, the Liberals have effectively declared an end to collective bargaining. They alone, by passing laws, will set the pay and working conditions, without negotiation. Teachers can accept their imposed contract, or quit. Or fight. Bill 12, by legislating contracts, makes unions pointless. And without unions, the politicians will decide what teachers will teach, how many students they will teach, and how much they'll earn for it.

It seems strange that this is happening when (according to the Liberals themselves) BC is booming, with low unemployment and investments pouring in. Why scapegoat the teachers, especially when Gordon Campbell wants his golden decade to produce the best-educated Canadians in the country?

Kill the chicken, scare the monkeys

During the fall of 1983, while the protests turned into a strike, I was teaching in China. There, I learned an old saying: "Kill the chicken to scare the monkeys." Make an example of someone, or some group, and everyone else will fall into line. Kill the BCTF, and the other unions will fall into line like frightened monkeys: the HEU, the nurses, the BCGEU, the whole BC Fed. If Campbell can legislate the destruction of the teachers, the surviving unions will be glad to settle for zero, zero, and a kick in the ass-just as long as they can keep a pretense of bargaining power.

After 22 years, not many remember the bitter wars of 1983. But we still live with the destruction done then. And plenty of politicians remember them. Some have waited patiently for a chance to break the labour movement once and for all.

The question now is whether the other unions' leadership and members remember also, and whether they see the threat facing them. If they do, then a real general strike could happen within days. It will not be a calculated move by the unions, but a desperate act to defend themselves and the hard-won gains of half a century. If the teachers don't win this one, we will all, as in 1983, end up losers.

Regular Tyee contributor Crawford Kilian was a school trustee in 1980-82, and covered BC education for The Province from 1982 to 1994. He has taught at Capilano College since 1968.  [Tyee]

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