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

"We are available 24/7"

by Nancy Knickerbocker

"We are calling on this government to come to a table and seek solutions with us. We are available 24/7."

BCTF President Jinny Sims declared teachers’ availability "24/7" so often throughout the historic two-week strike it became a running joke among the press corps covering the breaking news.

Few people realized how true her statement was. Foremost among them were the cabbies who arrived before dawn to take her to Canada AM or another of the eastern-based morning shows that set the news agenda across the nation for the next 24 hours. Prime time in the Eastern zone is 4:00 a.m. Pacific time, a difficult hour to be articulate.

But, there she’d be, well-coifed in a crisp suit on time at the studio where a sleepy-eyed technician would wire her for sound. Then, despite the oddly alienating experience of talking to a TV camera in an empty room, Jinny would still manage to make a genuine connection with the host and audience waking up in Toronto.

Her principled stand, generous smile and open heart connected with concerned parents and jaded journalists alike. They sensed authentic leadership, and sniffed a great story unfolding.

At the other end of the news cycle, there she’d be live on the local broadcasts at 11:00 p.m. Pacific time, updating the public on the latest developments. Some evenings there were as many as four television crews on location at the BCTF building on West 6th Avenue. Network satellite trucks parked nearby beamed their signals to the studios and across the province.

Jinny treated everyone, junior reporters to senior correspondents, with courtesy and good humour. They teased her that, no matter how early or late, they could never get her to stray from her main message about the urgent need to improve learning conditions for students, restore bargaining rights, and provide a fair and reasonable salary increase for teachers.

Jinny’s defense of teachers’ civil disobedience in the face of unjust legislation moved people. Day after day, as the risk and the pressure mounted, she remained strong and outspoken. She did so bolstered by a united and fearless Executive Committee, supported by experienced staff working flat out heart and soul.

Most of all, though, Jinny rose to the immense challenge of being BCTF President 2005 through the collegiality and solidarity of the members themselves. She visited picket lines every day, and drew on the teachers’ strength and stories to fuel her own work. She saw true heroism in their stand, and felt both humbled and inspired by it.

"It’s the 38,000 members of the BCTF who are my heroes. I want to thank you for your courage, and I salute you for taking this important stand for our students, our rights, and our profession," she said.

In response, thousands of teachers reached out to Jinny by e-mail, fax, and phone. They sent her cards, flowers, and even spa certificates.

Best gift of all, they found their voices. Teachers on picket lines used their cell phones to call radio talk shows and spoke out from the heart and from their experience in classrooms across the province. They wrote letters to editors, to trustees, to MLAs, to cabinet ministers.

Jinny and other senior Federation leaders now talk excitedly about how a whole new generation of activists has been born this fall, and how the BCTF’s future leaders are among them.

Jinny’s strong work ethic, physical stamina, political savvy, and resilient sense of humour all contributed to her success. Her classroom experience also helped her to take on the leadership challenges. As an English teacher, she has the language skills to articulate teachers’ concerns. As a social studies teacher, she gained historical knowledge that helped her see events in a larger perspective. And as a counsellor, she developed the people skills to work with those on all sides of the dispute.

Fluent in Punjabi, Jinny connected with the Indo-Canadian community in a way no BC labour leader has done to date. Her early childhood experience as an Indian-born student struggling to learn in English helped her understand immigrant families across all language barriers.

Hers was the quintessential immigrant success story just waiting to be told, and reporters soon awakened to the narrative drama. Along with the news coverage of unfolding events, The Globe and Mail, BCTV on Global, CBC Television, Sing Tao Daily, and The Courier all did personal profile stories of this clearly beloved labour leader emerging on the scene.

This positive coverage was all the more amazing considering Jinny was leading 38,000 people in an illegal job action, facing potentially devastating fines that could cripple the union and possibly land her in jail on charges of criminal contempt. Despite all that, public opinion remained strong: at least two-to-one in favour of the teachers over the government.

October 11, 7:00 a.m. On the picket line at Macdonald Elementary on East Hastings, Jinny and other teachers enjoy home-baked cookies and hot coffee delivered by former students Kalen and Jewels Murray.

In conversation, Jinny is shocked to learn that Kalen has 36 classmates in her woodworking class at Templeton Secondary. Kalen loves the course, but is frustrated by the frequent waits for teacher time and equipment in a shop that was designed for 24 students, not 37.

Hours later, at a big rally in front of the provincial cabinet offices at Canada Place, Jinny recounts Kalen’s plight as an example of why teachers are so determined to make improvements to class size and class composition.

In her speech, Jinny also quotes Linda Coyle, president of the Charter for Public Education Network, who said: "There’s a big difference between breaking the law and having a law created to break you." The crowd loves it, and clearly is experiencing no cognitive dissonance whatsoever over law-abiding teachers being found in contempt of Bill 12.

Leaving the rally is an emotional experience, and we make slow progress through the crowd as teachers reach out to shake Jinny’s hand, give her hugs, and express their feelings.

"Jinny, you’re doing an absolutely wonderful job. Carry on!

"Thank you for standing up for kids with special needs.

"Thank you for being a risk-taker.

"Will you autograph my picket sign?

"We’re with you all the way. Keep going!"

Ten days later, we were in a cab on the way to another, even bigger rally at the Pacific Coliseum organized by our wonderful sisters and brothers in CUPE. Four of us yakked and laughed all the way across town, driven by a turbaned Sikh fellow. As we arrived, he spoke a few quiet words to Jinny in Punjabi.

"Yes, of course!" she said. With that, he dialed his cell phone and passed it back to her. As Jinny chatted away, he explained to the rest of us that he wanted to give his 12-year-old daughter a chance to talk to Jinny because she had become her hero.

Nancy Knickerbocker is the BCTF’s media relations officer.

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