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

Law or justice?

by Art Gans

Many years ago, in the late fifties, I, with many others, marched in demonstrations for justice in sympathy with a leader of the black community in the southern US whose name was Martin Luther King, Jr. I wasn’t at Selma, but my bishop was. I joined with others in the Bay Area as we did what we could to express support for an issue that we believed was terribly important. I have never forgotten those days, even though they are more than half a lifetime ago.

I have been reminded of them again in recent weeks by the BCTF’s actions in the present labour disagreement here in British Columbia. I have seen a number of statements by those who say that the teachers are violating the law and providing a poor example for their students. Others have said things like "Jinny Sims is no Rosa Parks." Well she may not be, but there is a similarity in the situation that perhaps those who do not know their history might miss.

The march in Selma was against the law too. So were most of the actions of civil disobedience that were carried out in those days so long ago. The law in Alabama was quite clear, and, at the time had been upheld by the highest levels of courts. Segregation was legal in schools until 1954 under the doctrine of "Separate but equal facilities," which always turned out to be "separate but unequal." In the late fifties, segregated seating on buses and other public transport was legal and that is what the demonstrations were about. Black people paid the same fares, and many more black people used public transit than whites did, but they were limited in where they could sit. If the black seats were full, blacks were expected to stand, even if there were a number of seats available in the white section. It was Rosa Parks sitting in one of those white seats that started the Birmingham bus strike and triggered a major civil-rights campaign throughout the south. The law supported segregation, but justice did not.

And, that is where the present situation in BC is very similar. Several BC governments have legislated the BCTF back to work with imposed contracts. Ostensibly the teachers work for the BC Public School Employers’ Association, but in reality, that agency is a wholly owned and directed subsidiary of the BC government. It has no independent funds or the means to raise them. It is totally dependent on the actions of the government. And the government has legislated contracts that have not been negotiated and used its legal powers to do the same thing that southern governments in the US did during the civil-rights campaigns. The government has had the capability of sitting down with the teachers for a number of years and has chosen not to do so. They have, in their legal operations, removed negotiated elements of contracts to their benefit. And they talk about how the teachers are not "law abiding" when they finally say "enough is enough."

In my opinion, the teachers are doing just what other free people have done when governments took intolerable positions and tried to enforce them by law. Yes, they are in rebellion against an unjust law. Had the government sat down with them months ago and committed itself to real negotiations, it is my belief that the present situation would not exist. But since they didn’t, then I believe that the teachers have justice, if not the law, on their side.

After World War II, one of my particular heroes, Martin Niemoeller, a German pastor who spent most of the war in Nazi concentration camps, is quoted as saying: "When the Nazis came for the Communists, I wasn’t a Communist and so I did nothing. When they came for the Jews, I wasn’t a Jew and so I did nothing. When they came for the Catholics, I wasn’t a Catholic and so I did nothing. When they came for me, there was no one left to do anything."

Free people cannot obey tyrannous laws and retain their freedom. At some point, they must protest, even if the protest is declared to be illegal. If the government declares education to be an essential service, they should use the means that are normally used in such situations—binding arbitration—which takes note of the needs of both sides in arriving at a solution. Simply passing a law that imposes a totally one-sided contract is not and can not be a solution in a free country. It is my opinion that this is why the teachers have struck and for that reason, I support their action.

Arthur E. Gans is an Anglican priest and military ethicist, Lake Country, BC.

Source: The View in Lake Country, October 20, 2005.

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