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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 18, Number 2, October 2005

Free collective bargaining vs. essential-service legislation

by Sandra Davie

In the next year, we will hear a great deal both profound and inane rhetoric about whether teachers should have the right to free collective bargaining or teachers perform an essential service that must continue no matter what.

Most teachers believe they are entitled to free collective bargaining and all that process entails. It does entail ability to negotiate salary and working conditions and to take action, up to and including strike action.

The process developed over the last 200 years as people realized they had the right to a livable wage and decent working conditions. Unfortunately, most employers disagreed with such revolutionary ideas, and unions grew out of the employers’ intransigence.

At first, the courts sided with the employers, but they ultimately accepted the argument that people are not slaves subject to employer whims. Hence, the birth and growth of unions.

Once a union collective is formed, the workers speak as one in their relationship with the employer. Unity allows them to enter into negotiations and withdraw some or all of their service to illustrate to the employer that without the workers, there is no production and therefore no profit. The employer also has the right to lockout the employees, to show them that no work means no wages. Within that balance is an incentive to reach an agreement that works for both sides.

Teachers believe that in a democratic society they have the right, like others, to negotiate salary and working conditions. We acknowledge the vital importance of education but disagree that withdrawal of our service is a life or death matter, the traditional definition of essential service.

No child’s life would be endangered by a withdrawal of teacher service for a short period of time. Therefore, many teachers and others in the community see the essential service designation extended to the work done by teachers as a political act wrongly legislated by the Liberal government. If an essential-service designation doesn’t mean endangerment of life, the question becomes, How far would the government go in deeming workers essential? More significantly, what happens to the work of the last 200 years allowing workers to have a say in both salary and working conditions? If a right is taken away from one group, that right is taken from all. That idea is fundamental to our democracy and our society. That illegitimate loss of our right to full collective bargaining is a loss for all, and that is one reason teachers are upset regarding essential-service legislation. We think all citizens should be upset.

Another reason teachers are upset is that bargaining both salary and working conditions benefits the children in our care. Our working conditions are our children’s learning conditions. Specifically, I refer to class-size limits and ratios for non-enrolling teachers, such as teacher-librarians, counsellors, and special ed teachers. Taking those learning conditions out of the bargaining process places our children at the whim of the government, who can withdraw or withhold money from the public education system as it sees fit.

To a person not deeply involved in the education system, four students with special needs and three ESL students in a Grade 4/5 split of 34 students are just words on paper. They do not know the classroom reality those words describe. It is easy to say, "Well, adding one more child can’t make that much difference, and I can balance the books that way."

By having those working/ learning conditions in contract, teachers can address the needs of children; once the agreement is reached, the money for class sizes and support is guaranteed. It is not subject to whim. Surely, that is advantageous to children!

Just think about what happened in 2001. Government eliminated individual class sizes from the collective agreements, and as soon as it had done that, appropriate funding disappeared. Ask any teacher if her or his class sizes have improved since 2001. Also, by eliminating non-enrolling ratios, appropriate funding disappeared. Ask any teacher if support services for special ed support, ESL support, library, or counsellor support have improved since 2001. Teachers are upset because those benefits for children were negotiated, implemented, and protected through free collective bargaining. Now they are gone.

In the past, through collective bargaining, employers and employees reached agreements beneficial to all. What we have now is an employee group that can negotiate only salary. Our working conditions and the learning conditions of our children are off limits. And, trust me, they are not improving. We hear politicians like Gordon Campbell state in an outraged voice that teachers put themselves before students when they demand the right to free collective bargaining. Sometimes other voices join his demanding that a child’s right to an education is absolute and teachers have no right to jeopardize it. Such rhetoric speaks to the surface of the debate and not to the depth. In our society every child does have the right to the best education possible. Who would disagree with that statement? But how do we get to that "best education possible"? Surely not by placing decisions in the hands of people who do not understand the system and therefore allowing the government to withdraw funding as it chooses. Does this promote best education for everyone? Teachers, the people who live in the system every day and know what is needed, do not believe so, and the last four years confirm that belief.

Maintaining full-collective-bargaining rights is what our democracy is about. By denying certain groups those rights, we jeopardize the fundamental values of our society. How can the denial of basic rights fit into the best education scenario we all desire? We demean the very nature of education by distorting the concept of essential services, as the Liberal government has done.

Teachers want to teach. They do not want to strike, but they feel the necessity to speak out as they see the learning conditions of our children continually deteriorate. Would you want your child to be taught by a teacher who does nothing to protect your child? Would you want your child to be taught by a teacher who allows our society to be undermined and chooses never to speak out? I know I would not.

Returning free-collective-bargaining rights to teachers may mean at some time that they will strike to improve their working conditions and your child’s learning conditions. Deeming them an essential service gives the government the final say over how money will be spent in the schools. There is no guarantee that those learning conditions will be the best they can be. The government can make other choices with the money if it is not committed to the agreement.

Children will benefit when teachers can negotiate working conditions. Children will lose when the government has no obligation to maintain appropriate funding in the school system. The loss of services in the schools in the last four years effectively illustrates this point. A healthy democracy models its values. Allowing its citizens to negotiate working conditions and ensuring that its educational system is appropriately funded to ensure equal opportunity for all are values worth supporting. Those two reasons motivate teachers on this issue. We are not "putting our interests above the children" as some say. We see the issues as fundamental to our democracy and our educational system.

Sandra Davie is a retired teacher, Prince George.

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