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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 17, Number 6, April 2005

Why unions matter: Are we lions or lambs?

by Virginia Brucker

"Do I believe in arbitration? I do. But not in arbitration between the lion and the lamb, in which the lamb is in the morning found inside the lion. I believe in arbitration between two lions or two lambs. When a man puts a pistol to my head and tells me to deliver, there is no arbitration. There can be arbitration only between equals. Let us organize: then we will stand on an equal footing with the employers." – Rocky Mountain News, February 10, 1888

Yesterday was one of our local union’s two important general meetings. I was anticipating a large turnout—these are troubling times for educators and our students. We and thousands of other employees in B.C. have lost much, and face losing much more, in the coming years. As I looked around the church hall, I was glad to see so many familiar faces. We were predominantly a graying group—the majority of us are over 50 and will be leaving in record numbers over the next few years. The attendance was not what I’d hoped for.

As we hear more about the Wright Report, I began to worry about the working and learning conditions and long-term wellness of our younger colleagues. If accepted, the report has very troubling implications. And who will fight to have it overturned? Many of our union’s executive members will retire over the next few years. Will our younger colleagues come forward to take on roles in our local and in the BCTF? Can we take for granted the future of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation, which has always been such an advocate for political, social, and economic justice for our members, for our students, and for the working people of our province? Will the hard-won benefits the Federation and our members have achieved be legislated out of existence by the Liberals? Once lost, they may be gone forever.

Teachers care deeply about social justice and equality—we are caring people. It’s what we do. And we know that our working conditions are inextricably bound to our students’ learning conditions. When we stand up for working conditions, we stand up for children. Why are many of us reluctant to attend union meetings? Are we lions or lambs?

I’ve had many discussions with colleagues about the role of our union.

"My family didn’t belong to unions," was one response. "We don’t believe in them."

"I’m not political," said another. "I can’t do that stuff."

"Unions served a purpose in the 1970s, but they aren’t really necessary these days," was another comment.

Although I am only 51, I remember when we were not members of a union. I can remember when teachers and public-sector employees in B.C. had few or no rights. Benefits were nonexistent. Salaries were so poor that teachers worked evenings, weekends, and summers at other jobs. We weren’t the only ones. I remember the years before medical and dental plans—it took my grandfather years to pay the debts incurred when my father and his sister had serious childhood illnesses. Visits to the dentist were infrequent—many people had full dentures by their early 20s. My father grew up in a home filled with elderly relatives. Dad jokingly called it the Marpole Infirmary and Old Age Home—there were no pensions and wages were very poor. It wasn’t much different on my grandmother’s side. Aunt Bertie had no permanent home. Deaf from the age of eight, she had no income and lived a few months at a time with various relatives until my Aunt Stell took her into her two-bedroom 800 square foot home. Another aunt worked for Eaton’s in Winnipeg for over 50 years. Her pension in 1975 was $147 per month for her service. When she lived past 80, it was reduced to $123. She was fiercely loyal to her employer and took great care to tell me that "Mr. Eaton will look after us." We had some lively discussions about unions when she came to visit. It was hard for her to envision a world in which loyalty, commitment, and hard work were not enough to protect employees. Is history about to repeat itself?

The actions of the B.C. Liberal Government over the past four years have eroded collective bargaining and working and learning conditions for educators—inadequate funding has severely impacted teachers and students. Despite pre-election promises that healthcare would not be privatized, we’ve watched friends and neighbours in the health sector lose their jobs when services were contracted out. We’ve seen HEU employees accept a 15% pay cut in order to prevent the loss of more jobs. We’ve watched BC Rail be dismantled. We’ve seen jobs at BC Hydro and our medical records plan lost to international corporations. Election promises are easy to make—we know that actions speak louder than words. And yet, in our heart of hearts, many of us continue to believe that it will be ok, that it isn’t appropriate or necessary for us to be "political."

If accepted, the "Wright Report" recommendations will further erode the rights of teachers. One of the recommendations is that benefits be reduced for part-time teachers. This would particularly impact our younger members, who often work part time for several years before obtaining a full-time position. It would also affect teachers who work part time while bringing up their children. Will the maternity leave and care of sick child days that unions have worked so hard for be available in the future? Will sick days be available for any of us?

Another recommendation of the Wright Report affects our salaries. The report states that the government can claim they don’t have the resources to pay increases. Yet this year, the Liberal government is claiming a $1.9 billion dollar surplus. Don’t get excited—none of it is intended for you. Over the past decade, we have had many years of little or no salary increase. Sometimes we’ve accepted no raise in order to protect our class sizes, only to lose class-size limits later on. The increase in the cost of living is an enormous concern. Despite government claims that inflation has been low, we know that statistics about inflation don’t reflect the actual increase in the cost of living—housing and energy costs are not included. Volatility in energy prices has been a real concern. Many communities in B.C. have had a 28% increase in property values this year—what will that mean to our younger colleagues and their futures? What will another decade of wage freezes mean to teachers of all ages? Many of our parents will need financial support in the years ahead. Our children will need help as the tuition fees at technical school and colleges soar. If this is a "new era of prosperity," as the Liberals claim, are we to be excluded?

It’s hard to imagine what B.C. will look like in the future if the Liberals are re-elected. I think we can assume that the rights of teachers and other public-sector employees will continue to be under attack. What will happen to the thousands of hardworking public-sector employees in B.C. who have lost their jobs to contracting out recently? How will they retire? What will happen to our local businesses as disposable income becomes scarce. What will happen to the children of our province as many of their parents’ jobs are contracted out for slightly above minimum wages? It is up to all of us, those nearing retirement, and those just beginning our careers, to take an active part in our local union and our Federation. It is essential that we become involved in the upcoming election. Our very futures depend upon it.

Virginia Brucker teaches at Nanoose Bay Elementary School, Nanoose Bay.

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