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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 18, Number 2, October 2005

Focus on our goals not the length of a strike

by Larry Kuehn

Would a strike that lasted three months be harmful to public education?

Of course it would. It would be terrible for students, for teachers, and for parents. No one, not even kids who at first might appreciate a few days off, would see it as anything but harmful.

How, then, did a BCTF lawyer get quoted as arguing otherwise in a hearing before the Labour Relations Board? It comes down to legalistic arguments about how the LRB should define "essential." And that is part of the problem with the provincial government’s "essential services" legislation.

B.C. is the only province in Canada that has designated education as an "essential service," and many people question whether it’s necessary since teachers so rarely go on strike. The last teacher strike in B.C. took place in 1993.

Nonetheless, the B.C. Liberals brought in "essential services" legislation for teachers in the summer of 2001, right after they were first elected. At the time, they gave British Columbians the impression they were completely eliminating the right to strike for teachers, but that isn’t the case.

Under international labour law, "essential services" designation is reserved for services of a life-and-death nature, such as healthcare, police, and firefighting. But even workers in those fields have a right to strike as long as it does not endanger anyone.

To ensure public safety is maintained, "essential services" sets up a bureaucratic way of defining what job actions are allowed and disallowed, and gives the LRB authority to delineate the extent of a strike. Obviously, essential-service designation reduces the impact of any strike, but workers in services that are truly essential—those that are required 24–7—understand that.

The B.C. Liberals’ "essential services" law calls on the LRB to define a strike so as to avoid "serious disruption to the education program."

Lawyers for both the employer and the union then had to argue about what would be a "serious disruption" under the Labour Code. Reasoning that the LRB would likely come down somewhere between the positions put forward by the two parties, both sides put forward their most extreme cases.

The B.C. Public School Employers’ Association said only one dayof strike a week would be okay, but no more than 20% of instructional time.

Certainly BCPSEA would be hard-pressed to argue that missing one school day a week would constitute a "serious disruption," since the Ministry of Education has allowed several school districts to cut costs by cutting classes to only four days a week. Last year alone, B.C. students, mostly in rural districts, lost almost 1.68 million school days so that cash-strapped school boards could balance their budgets.

By contrast to the employer’s narrow definition, the BCTF argued in the other direction, seeking the broadest possible definition of what job action could be allowed. That’s where the three months comment came in, contending that even when strikes or lockouts have been lengthy, students’ education has not suffered any long-term consequences regarding test results, graduation rates, or attendance in post-secondary institutions.

It was a lengthy legal argument that got reduced to one sentence in headlines and editorials. But many people—teachers, parents, students—felt upset by the notion that the BCTF could just dismiss three months of school. And rightly so.

For teachers who try every day to spark young minds, it was hurtful that their Federation would say such a thing. Parents couldn’t imagine how their kids could miss such a big chunk of the school year and still succeed. Students, especially those graduating this year, were concerned.

For the record
We are not saying that losing three months of school wouldn’t be a problem, as the message came over in media reports.

We are saying that the greatest threat of "serious disruption" comes from a long-term decline in learning conditions, from larger classes, and inadequate staffing and services to meet students’ diverse needs. The impact of that erosion over a youngster’s 13-year school career can be much more significant than a temporary disruption that results in improved learning conditions.

This controversy is a good example of what is wrong with "essential services" legislation for education. It takes a concept that deals with the protection of life and limb, and applies it to a totally different situation.

Of course public education is essential, but the quality of education is determined not just by the number of days students are sitting in class, but by the conditions in their classrooms. Some days of strike may be necessary to get the learning conditions that are essential for the longer term.

The B.C. Liberals’ "essential services" legislation leads both union and management to focus their attention on defining the rules before the Labour Board, rather than on finding negotiated solutions to the problems that have led teachers to vote an overwhelming "Yes" on the strike vote.

We have to keep our eyes on our goals, and the goal is not a strike. It is improved learning conditions, and a fair and reasonable salary increase. Teachers voted more than 88% because we have a professional responsibility to advocate for our students, and we have the collective right to seek fair wages for our work.

A democratic strike vote and, if necessary, strike action can get attention to the issues and to put pressure on government to stop ignoring the really essential needs of both students and teachers.

Larry Kuehn is director of the BCTF’s Research and Technology Division.

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