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Teacher Newsmagazine   Volume 25, Number 1, September 2012  

True or false? The BCTF is a political organization 

By Ken Novakowski  

A provincial election will be held on May 14, 2013, and again the BCTF will attempt to secure public support for a stronger, better-funded, and more inclusive public education system, and for the election of a government that respects teachers and supports them in the important work they do each and every day in their classrooms and schools. The BCTF has long been recognized as playing an important role in shaping the politics of this province; it possesses a significant capacity to communicate with members and with the public and uses that capacity to advocate for an improved public education system.

So I thought it would be helpful in the months leading up to the next provincial election to clarify some of the realities and debunk some of the myths about BCTF involvement in the political process. I devised five important true or false statements. Read on and see how you score!

Since its inception, the BCTF has always participated in some form of electoral political action. True or false? 

During the first 50 years of our history (1917–1967), there is no evidence of any organizational intervention by the BCTF in the electoral processes of the province. As a teacher organization we had a close working relationship with the Department of Education and the government of the day. However, the Federation’s role was most often subordinate and non-critical. That changed in the 1969 election when the BCTF, on the heels of its “Over 40” campaign, geared to raise public concern about large class sizes, ran its “Apple Campaign,” granting an apple designation to education- friendly candidates.

This electoral action debut was followed by a dramatic intervention in the subsequent 1972 election when then BCTF president Adam Robertson publicly declared that “We won’t live with it.” He was referring to changes introduced by the Social Credit government of the day, changes that would: restrict a school district’s ability to raise revenue (they had the right to levy local taxes then); chip away at teacher tenure rights; and impose a government ceiling on teacher-arbitrated wage settlements (local bargaining). Teachers were opposed to the government’s actions and strongly supported their organization’s move to influence the upcoming election by calling for the defeat of that government. Thousands of teachers responded by working for opposition parties in that election. The government was defeated.

And even though the BCTF ran public “pro-education” campaigns in the 1979, 1983, and 1986 elections, it was not until 1991 that the organization fully mobilized to help defeat the government of the day, the very Vander Zalm Social Credit government that had given teachers full statutory collective bargaining rights at the local level a mere four years earlier. The issues were the same—reductions in education funding, legislative limits to teacher salary increases, and marginalization of teacher influence in educational decision-making. An estimated 6,000 teachers participated in the Federation’s “Teachers Make a Difference” campaign. Teachers clearly did make a difference in that campaign and once again the government was defeated.

Ten years later, along came Gordon Campbell and the BC Liberals. His government set out to cut taxes primarily for corporations and middle- and high-income earners and to launch major cutbacks in education and healthcare to pay for those tax cuts. This included major contract stripping of freely negotiated collective agreements of healthcare workers and teachers. His government closed schools, reduced the number of teaching positions, unilaterally legislated teacher terms and conditions of employment, and reduced overall funding and support for public schools. In the 2005 election, the BCTF spent $5 million on a public media campaign to help defeat the Campbell government. The effort fell short of changing the government but helped to ensure a strong opposition in the previously one-sided Legislative Assembly. FALSE 

The BCTF has been non-partisan in its electoral political action campaigns. True or false? 

While the BCTF has frequently called for the defeat of sitting governments because of their regressive education policies and legislative infringements on teacher rights, as an organization, the BCTF has never called for the election of a particular political party or donated money to a political party. Hence it remains non-partisan. Many other unions openly support the New Democratic Party and some are even affiliated to the NDP. They donate money directly to the NDP. When there are effectively only two parties in BC vying for power, the BCTF electoral stance of opposing the policies and record of a government or calling for its defeat is often misconstrued as support for the other party. Yet the BCTF to date has not endorsed or financially contributed to the election of any political party. TRUE 

The BCTF constitution and by-laws prohibit the BCTF from financially contributing to or endorsing a political party. True or false? 

In 1972, the BCTF Annual General Meeting voted to levy a day’s pay from every member to help defeat the Social Credit government of the day. When the action was challenged in the courts by dissident members, the court ruled that the BCTF could not levy members for the purpose of giving monies so raised to political parties. Because the Federation’s planned levy was thwarted by the courts, teachers formed the Teachers’ Political Action Committee, a group separate and independent from the BCTF but involving many of the BCTF provincial and local leaders. TPAC raised money voluntarily from teachers, gave money to opposition political parties, hired organizers to work in opposition campaigns, and went on to make a big difference in helping to defeat the government. The BCTF constitution provides for “the attainment of the purposes of the Federation by participation in educational, social, co-operative, electoral, political, economic, bargaining, or other activity authorized pursuant to the by-laws of the Federation.” By-law 4.3 prohibits the use of a levy “to finance political parties or their campaigns,” but otherwise does not prevent the BCTF from endorsing a political party or financially contributing to its campaign. Successive generations of leaders and members of the BCTF have simply chosen to maintain the organization’s non-partisan position. FALSE 

The BCTF offers education policy advice to both government and opposition parties. True or False? 

The BCTF has a policy book full of positions on educational issues taken by teachers over many years through their democratic organizational structures. Officers of the Federation frequently meet with government and opposition representatives to advocate for teacher positions on a wide range of professional, social, and economic issues, regardless of the party in power or in opposition. For example, when the NDP was in office in the nineties, BCTF representatives met with NDP ministers and the NDP caucus. But, we also met with the education committee of the opposition BC Liberals and even attended their convention as observers. TRUE 

Teachers today have good cause to work for the defeat of the current provincial government.  

Elaboration not required. TRUE  

Ken Novakowski, retired teacher, former BCTF executive director, BCTF past president, currently on the board of the Labour Heritage Centre.