A context for understanding the teacher job action

When the BC Teachers Federation challenged the constitutionality of the BC Liberal government’s imposing of a contract through legislation, they won in a sense. And the win was very important, because the ruling was a precedent-setting interpretation of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. I say that the teachers won “in a sense” because the win didn’t make much difference in the way teachers actually do their work. The government still got away with significant reduction in funding of the public school system, and the job of teaching still got more challenging.

Really, the court decision was not so much a win for teachers, as a it was win for unions in general. The decision ensured that the right to free assembly for the purposes of strength in collective bargaining was protected. It did not, however (despite the beliefs of what seems to be a majority of teachers) take away the government’s right to refuse to meet any of teachers’ contract demands.

Against the background of these legal precedents, the teachers and their employer began negotiating again. This time, however, the strategies of both the BCTF and the Government have been more cagey. The BCTF knows that the government has the right to intervene in a labour dispute if the dispute causes prolonged or particularly serious harm to the public good, so in protest of the failure of the employer to meet its demands, the teachers adopted a “teach only” strike. This was a fairly mild job action whose purpose was to inconvenience administration, while still providing education to students. Among others, two significant teacher services were struck: the production of report cards, and supervision. And the government? Well it knows that it must show that it has made an effort at real negotiations with the teachers.

In negotiations, the employer and the teachers remained far apart, and there was virtually no progress. The employer was hampered by the government’s policy of “net-zero”, which made any negotiation impossible. Two things played in the teachers’ favour. One, the popularity of the current government is at an all time low, and it looks like their demise is imminent. Two, the job action allowed teachers to receive full pay, thereby allowing teachers to sustain their slow burn tactic pretty much indefinitely – at least until the more labour-friendly NDP government was elected.

Suddenly, things changed. The government announced that enough was enough and it was going to legislate a “cooling off” period. But there was far more to the “cooling off” legislation than just cooling off. ¬†The bill called for a mediator, but restricted the mediator to the government’s “net zero” mandate, and further, it stripped provisions of the existing contract, effectively making the “cooling off” bill another legislated contract – one that teachers find very objectionable for a few reasons, as it takes the control of virtually every aspect of schooling out of the hands of teachers. This, teachers feel, is an insult to their profession. Teachers feel that as professionals, they are the best suited to determine how to deliver education, and are frustrated at the increasing difficulty they are having meeting students learning needs – especially children who have identified learning challenges.

On the other hand, the Liberal government, which is actually fiscally very conservative, is trying to find efficiencies in education. Their new legislation makes it easier to fire teachers, now that one negative evaluation is grounds for dismissal, easier to hire teachers now that seniority can be ignored, and easier to create more efficient classes by removing any limits on class size and composition. The legislation also co-opts the professional development days that were added to the school year by teachers. This allows them to “train” teachers in the initiatives that they feel are important.

The struggle right now between teachers and government is really history in the making. Significant societal issues are at stake. One is the concept of public education. Are we really able to provide equitable education that factors in the myriad needs of different students, including those with various learning difficulties?

Philosophies of education are at odds. Do we subscribe to the notion that the purpose of education is for the growth and development of individuals, or to the notion that the purpose of education is to train individuals to become the labour capital for a successful society through a successful economy? And beyond education, is the struggle between socialist ideals that would have profits distributed among the workers, as opposed to the capitalist ideals of trickle-down economics through survival-of-the-fittest laissez-faire market driven economics.

The resolution of this dispute will be historical. That is why so much passion surrounds it.

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