That's obviously why they hate teachers so much
// Samantha Thompson

“It’s so selfish,” I overheard a woman saying on the bus last week. “What about my kids? Why send home blank report cards? What if my daughter can’t get into university now?”

Her companion agreed, adding, “It’s not like being a teacher is difficult. You get all that vacation time in the summer and all you do is teach kids!”

Despite skewed public perception, teaching is anything but easy – and it continues to become more difficult as the government adds more strains to the teaching positions. Class sizes have fluctuated, but in 2010-2011, 3,627 classes exceeded the legislated maximum of 30 students per class (38 more than in 2009-2010) – a number which is still too high for one person to be adequately teaching.

It is an unrealistic expectation to think that a room full of 30 students, who all have different learning requirements, can get the assistance they need to learn all they need to in order to be successful. In fact, class sizes are something the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) is trying to discuss in their current contract negotiations – even though mainstream media will have you believe that they are only asking for wage increases and union benefits.

Since 1971, the BCTF has gone on strike three times. In that time period, the provincial government made it illegal for teachers to strike by deeming them an essential service, removed class size staffing and workload provisions, increased class sizes, and removed provisions that would guarantee support for students with special needs. It is because of changes like these that it quickly becomes necessary for teachers to strike. Unfortunately, each time, teachers are turned away from the bargaining table with less security and fewer reasonable negotiations.

Since 1994, when the NDP made it so that the BCTF was the provincial representation for teachers in collective bargaining, only one collective agreement has been reached on negotiated terms – and that was in 1995. All of the other collective agreements have taken effect as a result of government intervention, typically in the form of new legislation. These lacklustre new contracts have not been inadequate because the teachers’ demands are too high – they have been inadequate because the provincial government has, time and time again, refused to sit down at the bargaining table and have a real conversation.

We have seen this once more in teachers' job action this year. The teachers have been taking partial job action since Sept. 6, 2011, and although the BCTF and the B.C. government have met to negotiate, neither side has moved significantly on their requests. In the meantime, the B.C. Liberals have been running a series of ads that emphasize that the government is simply trying to help the teachers, if only they would let themselves be helped.

Yet, strangely, the B.C. government is getting money for their propaganda advertisements from the pockets of you and I – taxpayer’s money. Conversely, the money for the BCTF advertisements (although they have been incorrectly accused of wasting education dollars to run these ads) comes directly from the union fees collected from the BCTF’s members. The members of the BCTF decide where they want the fees to be spent.

On Feb. 28, the BCTF sat down with the B.C. Labour Relations Board to request the option to take the job action to the level of a strike, if negotiations were not able to happen. Permission was granted, so long as a list of guidelines were abided by. On the same day, George Abbott, the B.C. Minister of Education, submitted legislation to be voted on as soon as possible in the BC Legislature.

Inaccurately titled the “Education Improvement Act”, Bill 22, if passed, will introduce a truckload of restrictions surrounding the teachers’ ability to strike (and slap them with a hefty fine if they do so anyway); immediately end the current strike and introduce a “cooling-off” period until Aug. 31, 2012; and appoint a mediator for the negotiations. It also prevents teachers from “bargaining class size, average class size, staffing levels, ratios or caseloads for another two years,” according to the BCTF.

“I hope the teachers’ union will drop the rhetoric and help us move forward. I’m hoping cooler heads will prevail and that people will engage in the very meaningful mediation process that has been set out in this bill,” Abbott told the CBC. 

“This bill forces us into a mock mediation that has a predetermined outcome, and is designed to make teachers complicit in stripping the remaining protections in our own collective agreement,” said BCTF President Susan Lambert.

In a recently released poll, of 400 British Columbians surveyed, 52 per cent were against an imposition of a contract by the government on teachers, and that would increase to 62 per cent if the contract included things like a wage freeze or weakened seniority provisions.

In their initial request package, the BCTF was looking for an increase in bereavement time, compassionate care, a reduction in class sizes, an increase in special needs assistance, and an increase in salary, among other things.

The BCTF had to go to the Labour Board in the first place for permission to strike, because in 1996 the provincial government declared that teachers are an essential service in the public sector. Other professions with this label include paramedics, doctors, and firefighters – or, services related to the health, safety or the welfare of BC residents, or to the provision of primary or secondary education. Without these jobs, society could not function in an effective and progressive matter. Unfortunately, being referred to as an “essential service” is not synonymous with being referred to as a “valued service”.

The teachers voted on Feb. 29 in favour of striking, with 87 per cent of votes case supporting a strike. They will be going on strike beginning the week of Mar. 5, although they are not allowed to form a picket line on school property.

The teachers have had a particularly hard time with it, but they are not the only group of employees in the public sector who have asked for better conditions simply to be forced back into their place. Last year, we saw Canada Post take job action, and in the past civic employees and bus operators have joined the fight for better working conditions.

It remains a sad truth that in many cases, people are only on the side of the strikers until the missing service became an inconvenience to them. Suddenly, it was “those stubborn mailmen” and “I can’t believe the garbage men haven’t compromised yet!” The information too often excluded, though, is that it is difficult to compromise or reach an agreement when the party you need to negotiate with either doesn’t show up to the table, or holds fast in their demands.

Job action should never be seen as an inconvenience. You having to put up with no mail  service, or garbage in the streets, or a blank report card for your child – all are a small price to pay if it means that people can argue that they deserve better. If we raise the standard of living  for one sector, the rest will follow, and soon we may find ourselves with a well-paid labour force and a government that we can actually hold accountable.

 Wake up Canada – we do deserve better, but the government will continue to whimsically make things illegal unless we can prove to them that we know what they’re talking about, and we know that it’s not okay. The teachers deserve better, the students deserve better, and we as citizens deserve better. This is everyone’s fight.

//Samantha Thompson, editor-in-chief
//Graphics by Sarah Vitet

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© 2011 The Capilano Courier. phone: 604.984.4949 fax: 604.984.1787 email: editor@capilanocourier.com