Understanding unionism: the BCTF

This post goes out to anyone trying to understand how a unionist views the BCTF. It is especially targeted at young teachers, who were hired after 2002 when our bargaining rights were stripped. Let me just preface any further remarks by stating that when I was a boy, my father’s job was to negotiate against a very powerful union in a factory town. As a result, I believe I understand anti-union sentiment perhaps as well as anyone. And yet, I stand in solidarity and full commitment to my union.

A little background to union protocol

In a unionized workplace, everyone MUST belong to the union and pay a portion of their wages in dues. This allows the union to act on our behalf. In return for this sacrificing of union dues, we are given the benefit of protection from being fired if we collectively refuse to work (i.e. strike). At first glance, this rule may seem a denial of one’s autonomy. To be told one MUST belong to a union may seem heavy-handed. But this system was created in law in order to protect vulnerable people from being exploited by employers.

One need not look too far back into history to know that employers view workers as capital, and therefore will naturally try to extract as much work for as little compensation as possible. In fact, there are many examples of corporations in our very midst who benefit from sweatshops in other countries.

Clearly we can’t rely on an employer to care that workers have enough to live on – to pay the rent and all the bills. This fact explains why teachers’ pay has been in decline relative to the cost of living for the last 20 or so years. The employer has no interest in our pay scale keeping up with the cost of living. What we have now, we stand to lose without the union.

Unions have been so successful in narrowing the gap between rich and poor over the years, that it’s easy to forget the huge struggles that unionists went through to achieve these rights – life and death struggles. It’s easy in our relative comfort to forget that it is because of the very existence of unions that we have this comfort.

The most important principle of the union is solidarity. The union is the greatest fruit of democracy. Through solidarity, it puts power in the hands of working people.

And let’s be realistic. The system is not perfect. It can be bulky and inefficient at times. For example, although seniority is, by and large, the most fair practice for determining pay scales, it’s not perfect. Furthermore, different union leaders have varying philosophies about which benefits and whose benefits to prioritize, and not all members will be in agreement all the time. This is true of any democratic organization, and it is the reason that members must find in their busy lives a little bit of time to participate in union activities. Commitment and camaraderie make us stronger and better.

What did the government do that has led to all this legal action?

Before 2002, we had a contract that forced principals to keep class sizes down to a certain level. If there were students with special needs, class sizes had to be reduced to specific maximum numbers of students according to the contract, and a number of support teachers had to be hired. It wasn’t easier to teach in those days, but it was less frustrating because we were able to reach more students and teach to a deeper level of understanding.

In any contract negotiation, labour law states that if no collective agreement can be reached, the previous agreement is “standing” until a settlement is reached. Enter a very right-wing Liberal government, elected with a very strong mandate (There were only two MLAs in opposition, and the party felt they had carte blanche in public policy.). In 2002, the government ignored labour law and created a new law that stripped the standing contract. After this, the BCTF sued the government. We are now finally seeing the results of this lawsuit, though it’s quite likely that we have a way to go yet.

The BCTF – What have you done for me lately?

I have become greatly concerned of late that some our members, especially our younger members, have lost interest in unionism. There is little wonder why this might be true in BC. The government has crippled the union by legislating contracts rather than negotiating. This is illegal, but in an underfunded legal system, the issue of constitutional challenge is very time consuming. It has taken 12 years of very expensive legal action by your union to finally make some headway on this issue.

In the mean time, you are not able to see much success. Much of our money and effort has gone toward fighting in court. Believe me, this fact is not lost on the government. As the Supreme Court has recognized, the government has been very active in trying to disenfranchise teachers from their union.

So why support your union? Well imagine that there was no union. Not only is our employer rather egregious toward public education in general, but our employer is the government. One would think it rational to presume that the government would like to see a well-paid work force, but such is not the case.

If you were acting as a lone agent, what hope would you have of taking on a government that thumbs its nose at its own constitution? Our union has succeeded in legally challenging and striking down a LAW! This is no small achievement. We have accomplished this through our patience, our solidarity, and our financial sacrifice.

Perhaps the immediate gains are not obvious, but it is unthinkable to me that such reckless trouncing of the Charter of rights not be challenged. The BCTF has set legal precedents for generations to come, and for people not just in BC, but in all of Canada, in all types of employment. For this I am exceedingly proud of my union.

These are challenging times, times in which our country for the first time in its history has reverted to a long-term widening of the gap between rich and poor. Democracy as I have known it, has begun to slip from our grasp. But as people have shown in the past, no government can stand against the power of workers united. If we stay committed; if we stay strong, we will triumph.

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