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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 12, Number 1, September 1999

Teacher rights and benefits:
Building on our past

by Ken Novakowski

Today, the teacher collective agreement plays a key role in the welfare and worklife of teachers and in the quality of education we provide in public schools. That agreement came about through a long history of struggle and initiative with teachers working together in the BCTF and its locals over the past 82 years. As this century ends, it is an appropriate time to reflect upon the past collective achievements of our colleagues to understand how we have acquired the salaries, benefits, pensions, working conditions, and professional and employment rights that shape our teaching lives today.

When the BCTF was founded in 1917, there were 744 school districts in B.C. and a few thousand teachers. They were all paid different salaries, on the basis of a list drawn up by the board of each district. From the beginning, B.C. teachers established that they were going to pursue their collective objectives with serious rigour when in 1919, Victoria teachers held a two-day strike to achieve a salary agreement. This was the first teacher strike in what was then referred to as the British Empire.

From that point forward, B.C. teachers used job action, political action, and professional influence to help attain their goals. In Langley, in 1939, the school board refused to implement an arbitrated salary settlement and fired its teachers instead. After the teachers were re-instated by a Board of Reference, the school board transferred them in an attempt to demote the teacher leaders. The provincial Council of Instruction reacted by firing the school board and replacing it with an official trustee. The teachers were paid their arbitrated award.

In the mid-’50s, we saw the removal of discrimination in salary scales against women teachers and the elimination of differences in pay for teachers in elementary, junior secondary, and senior secondary schools. From that point forward, only qualifications and years of teaching experience would determine a teacher’s salary.

In 1974, after years of BCTF campaigns to reduce class sizes, Surrey teachers walked off their jobs for a day and travelled to Victoria in protest of large class sizes. The result, through vigorous negotiations by the BCTF, was a three-year committment by government to a sizable reduction in the pupil-teacher ratio. Thousands of new teachers were hired, class sizes and the PTR were reduced.

In the early ’80s the Federation embarked upon a major initiative to expand the scope of bargaining. Boards were only required to negotiate salaries and bonuses with teacher locals. But, in the fall of 1981, B.C. teachers in local after local obtained major improvements in their contracts, having negotiated in many districts such items as elementary preparation time, duty-free noon hours, personnel practice matters, and a grievance procedure. A successful six-day strike in Terrace in June 1981 on personnel issues had set the stage for this significant advance in bargaining.

The success of class-size reductions in the late ’70s and the 1981 round of bargaining were eclipsed by a restraint program introduced by the provincial government in 1982. Cutbacks in education funding and a wage-control program (Compensation Stabilization Program) had a dramatic negative impact on working and learning conditions in B.C. schools. But teachers were not the only people under attack. By 1983, the BCTF joined with the rest of organized labour in forming Operation Solidarity, which in turn formed the Solidarity Coalition with a broad sector of community- and social-action groups. A rally of 50,000 at Empire Stadium and a downtown protest march of 80,000 gave focus to the public opposition to the funding cuts and assault on labour and human rights being waged by government.

In November of 1983, the BCTF led the way in an Operation Solidarity-initiated strike action aimed at changing the legislative agenda of government. B.C. teachers walked out and picketed their schools for three days as the first part of a staged shut down of the province. When labour and the government reached a deal that ended the strike action, the major gain for teachers was the right to negotiate seniority and severance provisions with school boards.

B.C. teachers continued to press for full collective-bargaining rights. Those rights, including the right to strike, came in a strange package of legislation known as Bills 19 and 20 in 1987. Teachers viewed Bill 20 as a frontal attack on the right of the BCTF to represent the professional interests of teachers. We shut down schools across B.C. on April 28, 1987 to protest the legislation and joined with the rest of the labour movement in a general strike on June 1 to protest an overall erosion of workers’ rights contained in Bill 19.

Following a very successful sign-up and certification drive in the fall of 1987, locals and the BCTF prepared for the first round of bargaining under the new regime, which for the first time required boards to negotiate with teachers on all terms and conditions of employment. This was an exciting time in BCTF history; not only did we succeed in maintaining in contract what had previously existed in statute or board policy/practice, but overall major gains were made in working conditions and teachers’ rights. And teachers demonstrated their willingness to go on strike to achieve a collective agreement.

Our story doesn’t end here. In each of the next six issues of Teacher, we will run an article that highlights an event in our collective-bargaining history and explores what the issues were, what actions teachers took, and perhaps most important, what affects the event had on teachers then and now.

Ken Novakowski is the director of the BCTF’s Organization Support Division.

Editor’s note:
If you have a bargaining story you would like to share with teachers, please send it to Teacher at the BCTF office.

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