On Monday, February 27, 2014, twelve years after BC Education Minister Christy Clark stood up in the BC Legislature and smugly proclaimed her pride in a new legislation which stripped hundreds of contract provisions from teachers, something amazing happened.
Wearing the biggest grin I’d ever seen, Mike L, the senior teacher on my staff, literally danced into my classroom and handed me a memo.
What you should know about Mike is that in 1998, he was on the local bargaining committee that chose to improve classroom conditions rather than take a salary increase. Mike is a helluva teacher and a helluva guy. But I digress.
The memo that Mike handed me announced that the BC Supreme Court had finally ruled on Bill 22, the BC Liberals’ most recent reiteration of the original contract stripping legislation from 2002. The court had recognized the government’s bad faith bargaining with teachers, and its violation of the Charter. The government was ordered to pay the teachers’ union $2 million in damages, and to set class size and composition levels in BC’s schools back to the levels identified in contract language in 2001 – the very language that Christy Clark had stripped all those years ago. Furthermore, the government was to make amends retroactively for all 12 years, and cover all the teachers’ legal bills. The wording of the ruling was very damning of the government’s behaviour.
For 12 years teachers had witnessed egregious cuts to education, suffered nasty labour disputes and goading from the Ministry, and endured apathy from the public, who didn’t seem to understand what the government was up to.
At last, we had been vindicated. We had won in court! It truly felt like surfacing after being lost in a dark underground maze. We stood there blinking in the light, dazzled by new hope. We all wore huge smiles. We high-fived. We hugged. We wept.
Of course the joy was short lived. The government announced almost immediately that it would appeal the decision, and we’d be back in court for who-knows-how long.
Fast forward five months, and we’re once again stalled in contract talks with a government who has been targeting public education for years.
But this time it’s different. Through social media, teachers have been able to dispel public apathy. We’ve been able to refute government talking points with a barrage of non-partisan statistics and historic facts, most of which can be pulled directly from the Supreme Court ruling. This time, we’ve finally got a chance to make things better instead of watching them get worse.
But the government is lashing out like never before. In the most mean-spirited act I’ve ever seen by an employer in my lifetime the government has imposed an unprecedented “partial lockout” in order to justify docking teacher paycheques by 10%. Nasty. If any private sector corporation did this to its employees, it would be in trouble. Companies know that in labour disputes, there are lines you must not cross lest you do irreparable harm to the employer/employee relationship. But this government is a nasty group of ideologues. Far from their stated desire to mend the bargaining relationship with BC Teachers, their actions prove they want to crush the teachers’ union – to shame them. They are adamant. And they’re desperate.
They know their chance of overturning the Supreme Court ruling on appeal is very slim. Their appeal is just an attempt to buy time. It’s now June, and the October sitting of the BC Court of Appeal is short months away. A loss in this fight will cost the government hundreds of millions of dollars, and will almost certainly sink them politically.
And now, the teachers have called a strike vote.
The timing is tough. Teachers are weary by June. We are uncomfortable leaving the students with a bad feeling before summer break, and we’re tired of fighting –of losing pay to strike days, of having 10% cut from our salaries. Many teachers would rather not further anger parents.
On the other hand, a strong ‘yes’ vote will show a cynical government that it can never defeat us. It will show the government that no matter what it does to us, we will stand up in solidarity.
In this last, desperate battle before the judiciary lowers the boom, the government will throw all of its grenades, and things are likely to get ugly. Already rumours abound of a lockout for September, whether we strike or not. They want to punish us.
But for me there is no more fear. I don’t care what the government does to me any more. I have fought too long, and endured too much heartache to give up now. We are so close! If we hold rank we can win. We have the Charter and the Court of Law on our side.
And if we lose… well… I’ll be okay. But pity the future. Pity the children of the children I teach today. Pity the teachers who are starting out in the system, and pity Canada, a country that used to see public education as a chance for the downtrodden – a way for everyone to aspire to a fulfilling life.