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Teacher Newsmagazine   Volume 24, Number 4, January/February 2012  

2002–2012: Another decade of struggle for BC teachers

Looking back to the winter of 2002, former BCTF President David Chudnovsky remembers a powerful sense of inevitability. Then-premier Gordon Campbell was determined to slash public spending to pay for his 25% tax cut and there was absolutely nothing anyone could do to stop him.

The government targeted unions across the public sector. In education they went after teachers’ hard-won collective agreement language on class size and services for students with special needs; important provisions to protect teaching and learning conditions, but costly ones. The Liberals clearly underestimated just how important those provisions were to teachers.

Chudnovsky recalled: “I got a phone call a couple of days before they introduced Bills 27 and 28 from a government official asking me if we would voluntarily accede to removing those provisions and agree that negotiating improvements in learning conditions for students be made illegal. In return, he would ‘see’ if he could get a tiny salary increase for teachers.”

On January 26, 2002, then-Education Minister Christy Clark rose in the Legislature and tabled two bills that would have enormous consequences for teachers and students throughout the province. Bill 27, the Education Services Collective Agreement Act, imposed a new contract and Bill 28, the Public Education Flexibility and Choice Act, stripped class size and composition from the old contract. Clark added insult to injury when she stated that she was “delighted” to speak in favour of Bill 28, which she claimed was “about putting students first on the agenda.”

Over a single weekend, the Liberals wiped out decades of advocacy and sacrifice by thousands of teachers across BC and launched a decade of cutbacks, school closures, and untold damage to teaching and learning conditions. The BCTF and its members immediately responded with outrage and action.

“I remember how proud we all felt on January 28, 2002, when tens of thousands of BCTF members, parents, and students rallied across the province—almost 15,000 of us at the Coliseum in Vancouver—to oppose Bills 27 and 28 and to support improved education services for kids,” Chudnovsky said.

“After 2002, it didn’t stop. There was the mobilization of the political protest of 2005, the so-called illegal strike. What was that about? That was also about teachers attempting to advocate for children so that their learning conditions would improve.

“So how would I assess the significance of 2002? It was a moment—an unfortunate moment—in a very, very fortunate history of British Columbia teachers taking upon themselves the responsibility to advocate for kids to make sure their learning conditions improve. That hasn’t stopped and it’s not going to stop.”

Bills 27 and 28 enabled the government to cut at least $275 million per year from the education budget. But cost-cutting wasn’t the only reason the Campbell government went after teachers’ collective agreements, Chudnovsky says. One was simply the raw assertion of power by a government with an overwhelming majority, fuelled by the Liberals’ disdain for the labour movement and their extreme discomfort with the unrepentant and outspoken advocacy of BC teachers.

“It has to do with the government’s notion of how public policy is administered. Governments think they know best and that it’s for them to decide what the conditions of learning will be in schools,” he said.

“We as workers believe, rightly in my view, that the people who work in the system have a right and a responsibility to have some input. Not just if the government feels like it, not just consultation, but actual input and the ability to contribute to the decisions that affect the system. And the BCTF to its great credit has for many years used whatever tools available to it, including collective bargaining, to assert that right and responsibility to have a say in how schools work. There is a kind of industrial democracy inherent in strong collective bargaining. Government—the Campbell government—was incredibly uncomfortable with that. I think that is a second reason why they did what they did.”

Another very closely related reason lies in the BCTF’s confidence and strength as an advocate for progressive public policy in general, and public education in particular.

“BC teachers have always been prepared to stand up for what they believe, no matter what the government of the day thinks. We are going to advocate for teachers, for students and for public education, and we are not going to apologize for that. The government didn’t like that attitude and still doesn’t. So I think that was a piece of the story as well,” Chudnovsky said.

What’s the message for younger BCTF members who have never worked under those collective agreements?

“I would want to say to those teachers that we old-timers know and understand that their commitment to kids and to the learning conditions of the kids they teach is no less than ours was. But we were fortunate in that we had a tool available to us in the course of that struggle to improve things—that tool was the collective agreement.

“Sometimes we idealize collective bargaining rights. And we convince ourselves that all we need is the right to bargain and everything will be okay. Wrong! It’s an improvement in democracy, right? Collective bargaining is the right of people who work in an enterprise to have some say about that enterprise. But it’s really just a tool, it’s not a guarantee.

“I would want to say to younger teachers who didn’t experience that, it was a long way from perfect. But it had integrity, a responsibility, accountability, and a democracy to it that was tremendous for teachers. But most importantly, it was tremendous for kids.”

The BCTF mounted a challenge to Bills 27 and 28 and, in April 2011, Madam Justice Susan Griffin of the BC Supreme Court found the legislation to be unconstitutional and invalid because it violated teachers’ Charter rights to full and free collective bargaining. The government was given one year to rectify the situation. Education Minister George Abbott has said that “corrective legislation” will be tabled in the spring session of the Legislature.

In light of the Supreme Court ruling, how should we think about this 10-year anniversary?

“I think this is another moment where we look back on the past but also look to the future. We look back on a past that we should be very proud of. We have never stepped back from our advocacy for children and their classroom conditions,” Chudnovsky said.

“What tactics, what strategies, what tools will we have available to us in the coming months and years to continue to do that? Teachers have said through the Federation that we want, once again, to be able to use the tool of collective bargaining. That’s certainly worth continuing to fight for. It’s fundamental.

“At the end of the day I am completely confident because I know teachers teach in classrooms where the conditions that kids have to learn in have been undercut for 10 years now. And they see that. And they’re teachers! They are there for a reason: because they care about kids. And so I am completely confident.

“What will this anniversary mean? Another step on the road to what we all care about and believe in and are committed to, which is to improve the conditions under which children learn.”  

 – David Denyer and Nancy Knickerbocker, BCTF Communications and Campaigns Division  

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