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

How the teachers won

by Glenn Bullard

"You always said I was a bum. Well, not anymore. I’m going down to the dock. Don’t worry, I’m not going to shoot anybody. I’m just going to get my rights." — Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront (1954)

On October 7, 2005, the teachers of BC launched a strike as daring as anything dreamed up for the movies. They took on the Liberal government that had held them in contempt for four years, and that had threatened to use the courts to crush them.

On the seventh day of the strike, a supreme court justice seized control of their union’s assets, prohibited strike pay, and threatened further penalties, including enormous fines and criminal proceedings, but by then the teachers were already well on their way to a major victory.

From the first day, they had taken to the public airwaves to do what they do best—they talked. And talked, and talked, and talked. They talked about class size and composition, staffing ratios, special needs, and a dozen other teacherly matters that are reality for them.

They talked one after another: wise, foolish, arrogant, and timid. They talked with passionate, idealistic rhetoric and with cool, fact-based logic. In their endless, quirky variety they talked, by turns charming, irritating, silly, sensible, and always irrepressibly human and deeply caring. And the people of BC listened.

The government didn’t stand a chance.

Across the province, teachers produced facts and opinions that overwhelmed their opponents and drove them from the field. Ten days into the strike, they had won.

The Vancouver Sun summed up their stunning achievement: "Public support for BC’s striking teachers has remained steady at just under 60% since their province-wide illegal strike began..."

The Liberal government asked Vince Ready to draft the terms of a truce.

By this time, the teachers had talked up so many issues, old and new, that it took them several days to understand and accept his recommendations. Even after their first day back at school, many teachers are still confused about the way the strike ended, and uncertain about what they achieved for their efforts.

They haven’t yet achieved a fair and reasonable salary increase. That will come later, through the collective bargaining process. Ready’s recommendations give them a great head start, but it will take determination to carry the next round of bargaining to a successful conclusion.

They haven’t yet achieved guarantees for student learning conditions in The School Act. Those too will come later, through the ordinary political processes that shape public policy on a hundred other matters. Ready’s recommendations broaden the union’s scope of action in this new arena, but it will take an entirely new set of tactics and ways of thinking, and much patience, for the union to effect the changes they seek.

So what did they achieve, besides a headstart on the next round of bargaining, and a leading role in public policy development?

They forced the most anti-union provincial government in Canada to publicly acknowledge the BC Teachers’ Federation as the foremost authority on educational matters.

They inspired the labour movement by their audacity and courage and determination.

They won the hearts of the public with their democratic sense of responsibility to check the authoritarian tendency of an arrogant government.

It will take time for some teachers to grasp the significance of their victory, and it will take hard work to turn that victory into further concrete gains.

What’s important now is that teachers understand that they won this round. They need to hear that from their leaders and from each other, to build their confidence for the struggles ahead.

To allow the teachers of BC to think that they failed, that their strike was futile, would be to disdain their great courage and to squander their victory.

Glenn Bullard teaches at Columbia Square Adult Learning Centre, New Westminster.

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