BC Teachers Go Back to Work — Who Won the Battle?

For the first time in two weeks, public schools in British Columbia were open for business yesterday.  Teachers had voted over the weekend by a 77% margin to accept a mediated settlement to the dispute recommended by arbitrator Vince Ready.  In the wake of the decision, there is much public debate and discussion, including among the ranks of teachers, about what was achieved in the struggle.

Last Thursday, Ready released his proposed settlement.  It included an award of $40 million to “harmonize” teacher salary grids throughout the province.  This would amount to about a 2 percent wage increase, but only teachers who were on lower salary grids would receive the compensation.  It also has the government put another $40 million into the teachers’ long-term disability plan, with the long-term goal of having the plan be an employer responsibility and not a union-funded plan, as it is now.  The agreement commits another $5 to guarantee a minimum $190/day rate for Teachers On Call, plus pay at full salary grid rates after 3 days in an assignment. The deal increases teacher representation at the “Education Roundtable” set up by the government to discuss long-term solutions to key educational issues, including teacher bargaining.  The roundtable includes representatives from parents, administrators, trustees, and the provincial government itself.  The settlement also increases the government commitment of $150 million in new funding this year to $170 million, with the additional funds specifically targeted to improving class size and addressing special needs issues.  Finally, the settlement requires the government to “consult” with teachers with the aim of putting firm class size limits in grades 4 to 12 in the school act and ensuring there is an effective method of monitoring actual class sizes and redressing oversize classes.

On Friday morning, the provincial government agreed to the proposal “unconditionally.” Jinny Sims, speaking for the BCTF Executive, wanted a letter of intent from the government promising to have class sizes in the school act by the end of the year as a condition to recommending the deal to teachers.  The government refused to do this, and, after lengthy discussions within the BCTF Executive, they ended up recommending acceptance of the deal as it is.

The main disappointments for teachers are that there is no binding commitment by government to guarantee maximum class sizes, which was a key objective in the dispute.  The additional $20 million for class size and special education is not enough to have any significant impact on the system in the short run.  The report does not address at all guarantees on class composition and workload limits for non-enrolling teachers such as librarians, counselors, ESL teachers, etc. which have a big effect on the overall learning and working conditions of a school.  The lack of progress in these areas was the main reason why so many teachers voted “no” and some local executives, including the large Surrey local, recommended rejecting the deal. 

On balance, however, the outcome is clearly a big victory for teachers.  After seven legislated agreements in the public sector by the Campbell government, the BCTF’s courage in being willing to take on an illegal strike forced the government to appoint a mediator and to accept a mediated settlement, which broke the pattern of passive acceptance of unilateral imposed contracts.  The enormous public support for teachers throughout the illegal strike was itself a very important achievement.  It signaled that the public agreed that there are real problems in the schools and teachers’ concerns to have a say in how to improve learning and working conditions is valid.  It strengthens the hand of the BCTF enormously in future negotiations and in the roundtable discussions, which have already begun.  Prior to the strike, the government and the big media were denying there were any difficulties in the school system, citing high test scores as proof that the BCTF was just whining in its own self-interest.  Thanks to teachers’ impassioned and articulate case for what needs to change in schools, even the government has been forced to admit there are difficulties with class size and composition that need to be fixed.

It also signaled a public distaste for the heavy-handed government tactic of imposed settlements. This precedent will force the government to actually negotiate when other public sector contracts expire in the next few months.  Although the essential services legislation and Bill 12 remain in place, the fact is that teachers pulled off a 2-week illegal strike, walked away with a settlement, and avoided what might have been heavy damage to the union.   (Judge Brown fined the BCTF $500,000 on the last day of the strike for their defiance of back-to-work orders.  Given the $14 million strike fund, this will not in any way damage the ability of the union to function.) The teachers may not have the full right to strike in law, but they have taken it back in practice, and retained public support to boot.

Many teachers were unhappy with the role of the BC Federation of Labour and its president Jim Sinclair.  Sinclair insisted that teachers should approve the Ready agreement before they had even seen it.  He also refused to back the regional walkouts during the last week of the strike, leaving CUPE and the BCTF very much on their own.  He was conspicuously absent from the podium at the huge rallies in Vancouver and Surrey on the last day of the strike.  There was a definite sense that much of the top labour leadership were preoccupied with ending the strike at any price and weren’t respectful of the sacrifices teachers had made.  The teachers only joined the Fed a couple of years ago, and there is talk by some of not ratifying the affiliation when it comes up for a scheduled vote next year.  Cooler heads will probably prevail, but CUPE and the BCTF together form a formidable voting block within the Fed, and they may provide some significant challenges to the backroom style of the current leadership.

Despite these differences, the public education system, the teachers’ union, and the labour movement as a whole are immeasurably strengthened as a result of the teachers’ courageous defiance of an unjust law by an authoritarian government.  As teachers go back to greet their students, they can walk into their classrooms with their heads held high.    

Bob Rosen is a recently retired teacher and activist in the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation.