- Vancouver, British Columbia -
“When workers combine, masters ... never cease to call aloud for the assistance of the civil magistrate, and the rigorous execution of those laws which have been enacted with so much severity against the combination of servants, labourers, and journeymen.” - Adam Smith, The Wealth Of Nations, 1776
Editor's Note: Read my previous article on teaching, "The Unfortunate Tale of Teaching in BC," for more background on this follow-up piece.
As a parent of a school-aged child here in British Columbia, as well as a relative of several teachers, the unfortunate state of teaching here in BC is a hot topic for me. I’ve written about it before, and my opinion hasn’t really wavered on the subject. But I was feeling a follow up was needed. At the time of writing, teachers have spent five months on “job action,” the sorry excuse of a protest they have been reduced to, and a total of ten months with no contract. While most of the other unions have been able to make arrangements, the BC Teachers’ Federation is finding itself still in a tough bind. According to the BCTF, the BC Public School Employers Association isn’t willing to compromise at all. And according to the BCPSEA, the BCTF’s demands are completely unreasonable. Both parties have expressed deep concern over the inability to move forward.
The relationship between the two entities has been hot for a while, since 1992 when the BCPSEA became the group to negotiate province-wide contracts with teachers. This has been nothing short but disastrous, because the two groups have never agreed to a contract, and the BCPSEA has simply pushed forward to have the contracts legislated whenever they get sick of bargaining with the BCTF et al. In 2005, the BCPSEA got the upper hand when it convinced the BC Labour Relations Board that any strike by the BCTF should be deemed illegal. The BCTF continued to strike at that time, however, even when it went before the Supreme Court, who ruled against them and ordered them back to work. The Supreme Court even ruled that the strike pay was out, and teaching was an essential service. I already mentioned in my last article how asinine it is that something be an essential service but not a guaranteed right under Canadian law, but again this is the BCPSEA wanting to have its cake and eat it too (although…who wouldn’t?).
As I mentioned before, we’re now at a point where teachers aren’t even allowed to bring up class sizes at the bargaining table, even though it is a strong factor in a teacher’s workplace environment. Cutbacks are rampant, as I also noted before. Schools are looking for more ways to cut costs, and as staff leave or retire, their jobs are slashed entirely even though there are new grads wanting to take the jobs. And ultimately our kids pay the price with less focused education and no support for students who need it. We live in a province that is hostile to teachers.
I’d like to propose something here.
Unions have a history of being the underdogs. They were outright illegal in England until the mid 19th century, but they arose anyway, simply because during the height of the industrial revolution, industry leaders cared only about the bottom line: profit. As such, labour laws were practically nonexistent. Remember, this was a time when children were sent to work in mines and on production lines. Injuries sustained on the job were not compensated for by the company. Wages were a pittance. Poverty was rampant.
Would it not be fair to say that these early unions had it the hardest? The consequences of striking were to be out of a job, with no pay, and to starve on the street. Thugs employed by the companies to keep employees in line would react violently. Is this new information to some of you? Chicago itself has seen its fair share of strikes, some successful and others not, but perhaps the best example would be the railroad strike of July 1877. 30 died and 200 were wounded by police and the military. These early unions were simply a group of people sick and tired of being oppressed. And through unions, we have achieved workers’ rights and benefits. Labour laws protecting children, the elderly, the disabled, and the sick exist not because of industry, but because of unions.
But I feel the BCTF has lost its teeth. It has become lost in its own bureaucracy. Tell me why the BCTF collects union fees but is not allowed to give out strike pay. Tell me why they are playing by the BC government’s and the BCPSEA’s rules. These two entities aren’t going to stand up for teacher’s rights. If the BCTF feels strongly for its employees, they should repeat a bit of history and go on strike like in 2005. If the teachers had gone on an actual strike in September, and no kids had been able to go to school, you would have inconvenienced the whole province. And that’s the point! You would have been listened to! Sure, they can fine you, but those early unions were on shakier and far more dangerous ground. They stood up for what they believed in to get changes made.
But to all you teachers out there, I’m hoping you’re starting to question the usefulness of the BCTF. What are they doing for you? Protecting seniority? Give me a break. There are many competent individuals with a wide-range of credentials waiting on the sidelines hoping to become teachers with new views and energy to bring to students, and what about them? In an effort to protect the dwindling jobs that are being slashed by the government, the BCTF has formed an elitist group that revolves around the notion of “dead man’s boots.” I sincerely doubt that any of the teachers who have been working in our province long are in favour of this mentality, but accept it as the way it is.
I challenge that notion. Because your union is toothless, it has pitted teacher against teacher, when the real enemy is the one who calls your needs “unreasonable.” We all know this province can afford what you’re asking. After all, we were able to cough up money for the Olympics pretty quick. And those amazing tax cuts given to businesses (our big BCLiberal backers) certainly demonstrate that money is in no short supply. This province continually advertises how well we’ve weathered the economy until someone asks for a cut of the wealth.
I’m not about to say that teachers should get what they want immediately and without question. But here’s what I am saying to you teachers: if you believe in your work and find it of value, pressure your union to stop playing by the rules of your opponents. If they can’t see past their own bureaucratic bullshit to get things done for you, get rid of them. Tell the BCTF that they don’t represent you, they only represent themselves, and pass a no-confidence vote (or whatever you do to dissolve unions) and unionize into something new. Then go out and break some laws! Fight back! Tell this province that their kids are important, and you won’t settle for mediocrity in our classrooms. You want to talk about classroom sizes; you want full time counselors in our schools. You want to be paid appropriately. Take off that stupid essential service label.
It’s time for you to strike.