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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 18, Number 1, September 2005

Taking a stand
Because kids matter and teachers care

by Jinny Sims

British Columbia’s excellent public school system has been built by the teachers, parents, and citizens of this province over many generations. But, no one has ever given the teaching profession in this province anything significant that we didn’t have to fight for. Throughout the long history of public education and the teaching profession in this province, the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation has been there, representing the economic and professional interests of teachers, advocating for improved learning conditions for students, and working for a socially progressive and just civil society. And the BCTF and its locals have been there to unite teachers and to support us in achieving our collective goals.

In January 2002, the Liberal provincial government legislatively imposed terms and conditions of employment upon teachers while we were on a limited and legal job action. They stripped our collective agreement of all matters pertaining to limits on class size, composition of classes, and staffing requirements for specialist teachers. And they made it illegal to bargain those matters into our agreement in the future. It took previous generations of teachers many years, many struggles, and often strikes to obtain the teaching and learning conditions that existed in B.C. schools prior to 2002. Those conditions, arrived at by both employees and employers at the bargaining table, are gone now, and the effect on the education system has been significant: larger classes and fewer teacher-librarians, counsellors, learning assistance teachers, special education teachers, and ESL teachers.

The deterioration of our teaching conditions and our students’ learning conditions is not the only effect of the government’s attack on our collective agreement. Our loss of bargaining rights as teachers has diminished our role in the education process at the school level, the district level, and the provincial level. The government no longer consults the teaching profession when introducing major changes to the public school system. And government continues to question our fundamental right to speak out.

One thing we have learned from our history is that when we are united, we can achieve our goals. Teachers in Victoria and New Westminster took strike action in 1919 and 1921 for the basic right to represent teachers and collectively bargain their salaries. In 1939, Langley teachers stood up to their employer on threat of demotions, forced transfers, and dismissals to secure the implementation of an arbitrated settlement. In 1971, all B.C. teachers walked off the job to support improvements in our pension plan. Surrey teachers walked off the job in 1974 to protest large classes. In 1983, teachers walked out for three days across the province, to secure seniority rights in our agreements. And between 1988 and 1993, teachers in locals all over the province engaged in job action as necessary to obtain class-size limits, class-composition language, and many other teaching conditions that are part of our work life today. Once again, it is time for teachers to take a stand.

When we speak out as teachers about the conditions in our classrooms, the public listens. A public-opinion survey done by the Mustel group in June 2005 confirms what previous polls have shown: classroom teachers have the highest credibility of all. And 88% of the public agree that it is important for teachers to speak out on public education issues like funding cuts, larger classes, and reduced support for children with special needs. A major BCTF survey of B.C. teachers taken earlier this year indicates a significant deterioration in classroom conditions. For example, when asked to respond to the statement "Adequate special education assistant time is available to each student who needs it," an overwhelming 82% of 14,500 teachers who responded to the survey disagreed with the statement. It’s important to let parents know the needs of our classrooms and to inform the public about the needs of our schools. Together we can do that.

Your Executive Committee is committed to doing all that we can to achieve our goals--improved learning conditions in our schools, a fair and reasonable salary increase for all members, and ultimately a return to full bargaining rights for teachers. But what we achieve will not be won by me or by the Executive Committee. It will require you to be part of a process that lets government and the public know that together the teachers of B.C. are taking a stand because kids matter and teachers care.

Jinny Sims is president of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation.

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