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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 18, Number 3, November/December 2005

BCTF action in historical perspective

by Ken Novakowski

BC teachers’ recent two-week illegal strike will clearly demarcate a watershed for the BCTF and organized labour in this province with respect to bargaining rights. The action not only challenged government legislation, it sought to have government agree to terms and conditions of employment that were not contained in the "legislated agreement." As such, this action was more than a protest, it was a challenge to the seemingly inalienable right of governments to pass unjust laws.

Democracy is not just about winning a majority government and having your way; it is about continuing to govern with the consent of the majority. Gordon Campbell’s government did not have the public on his side in this dispute—quite the opposite. Parents and the public overwhelmingly supported teachers and the goals they were seeking even after court rulings declared the action illegal. The moral authority in this dispute was with the teachers.

Ever since the election of the Campbell government in 2001, bargaining rights have been under attack. Collective agreements have been ripped up. Terms and conditions of employment have been arbitrarily and unilaterally imposed by legislative fiat. Public-sector mandates set by government have become sacrosanct. Collective bargaining in BC, at least in the public sector, has become a sham. When the Hospital Employees’ Union continued their strike action in 2004 after a legislative agreement was yet again imposed, labour stood together and on the basis of threatened action, mitigated the job loss aspects of the imposed settlement. Labour had taken an important first step toward collective action.

But it was the teachers of this province, who after four years of being bullied by the provincial government, said enough is enough and stood firm in the face of unjust legislative imposition once again. BCTF members, knowing the risks of withdrawing services in the face of the legislation, voted overwhelmingly to do so. And all the conditions were right to do so. Hard work by teachers and the BCTF [leaders and staff] on the issues of education underfunding, classroom conditions, and teacher salaries over the past number of years laid the groundwork for public understanding.

The public had also had enough of the Campbell government’s heavy handedness in dealing with citizens in all walks of life. And the labour movement was ready to take a stand for bargaining rights. We had a united leadership and a united membership with clear and understandable goals.

So we took on the state in a battle that labour historians will tell you labour never wins. We proved them wrong.

Since the inception of the BCTF in 1917, BC teachers have acted collectively, to press politically for their issues when no legal avenues of recourse existed. In 1919 in Victoria and in 1921 in New Westminster, teachers, in the absence of any legal dispute resolution mechanism, went on strike to get union recognition and agreement to salary scales. In 1971, we held a province-wide withdrawal of services for one day to protest the lack of indexing in our pension plan. In 1974, Surrey teachers walked off the job for a day to go to Victoria to protest large class sizes and untenable working conditions. And in 1981, teachers in Terrace struck for six days for a personnel issues contract. All this happened without a legal framework for strike action.

Then the Solidarity Action of 1983 happened. Teachers in a member vote the year before had actually rejected requesting the right to strike as a resolution mechanism for the salary bargaining we did at that time. But, when the newly elected Bill Bennett Social Credit government escalated its restraint program and introduced 26 bills into the legislature on July 7, 1983, it triggered a widespread public outcry led by the BC Federation of Labour against the legislative package that threatened to destroy the entire social-safety net and human-rights framework of the province. Bill 3 allowed unionized public employees, including teachers, to be laid off without cause and without reference to seniority. BC teachers, as part of a wider BC labour action, walked off the job on November 8, 1983, and picketed school sites in every local in the province for three days. Other education workers walked out as well, joining the BCGEU, which was already in the midst of a legal collective-bargaining strike. With the action set to escalate after the Remembrance Day long weekend, the BCFed reached an agreement with the government that guaranteed seniority rights in lay-off for public employees. For teachers, it meant that we could now negotiate seniority/ severance provisions locally, something that was previously outside our legal scope to bargain.

On June 1, 1987, the BC Federation of Labour held a one-day, province-wide general strike to protest Bill 19, a regressive piece of anti-labour legislation. That was the last time that labour in this province acted in consort to press back the agenda of a government that was clearly opposed to free collective bargaining.

I believe that by standing up to the Campbell government, we have given other working people the confidence to take on the fight. Hopefully, the experience will change the parameters and the ethos of collective bargaining in the public sector in the years to come. Specifically, it should lead to greater co-ordination and a more inspired collective resolve that transcends sectors when we, along with thousands of other public sector workers, go to the bargaining table in the new year.

Ken Novakowski is the executive director of the BCTF.

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