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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 17, Number 1, September 2004

It's who we are

by Ken Novakowski

"We won’t live with it!" With those words in 1972, then BCTF President Adam Robertson heralded a new political stance for the B.C. Teachers’ Federation. On behalf of all teachers, Robertson declared the BCTF’s intention to fight to change the government of the day in the next provincial election. Teachers were angry with government legislation restricting a school district’s ability to raise revenue, with government attempts to chip away at the tenure rights of teachers, and with the government-imposed ceilings for arbitrated teacher salary increases. All that came on the heels of the BCTF’s first province-wide strike action in March of 1971, when teachers across the province shut down all schools to protest the government’s unwillingness to improve pensions for retired teachers. The BCTF went on to play a major role in the August 30, 1972, election that defeated the W.A.C. Bennett Social Credit government.

The success of the 1972 teacher involvement served notice to all political parties that teachers would stand up for their rights, for their students, and for public education and that, if necessary, they would use the electoral process to achieve those results. This political-activist stance of the BCTF did not come about overnight. It was the result of many meetings and extensive debates by teachers within the organization over the five years leading up to the 1972 election. And it included a BCTF foray into the electoral process in the 1969 election called the "Apple Campaign."

In 1972 and subsequent elections, electoral strategies adopted by the BCTF were tailored to the needs of the time, but they have never involved endorsing a political party. The BCTF remains non-partisan as an organization and actively advocates for its policies regardless of the government in office.

While the BCTF ran political-action campaigns in elections in 1979, 1983, and 1986, not until the election of October 1991, did the organization mount a full-scale initiative to defeat the government of the day. The key issues were again reductions in education funding and attempts by government to intervene in the collective-bargaining process by legislatively limiting teachers’ salary increases. Teachers wanted four things out of that election: fairness in bargaining (no more government interference), stability in the system (an end to government always changing the rules), support for the job they are doing (adequate resources), and respect for the profession and for the work they do.

Teachers’ involvement in the 1991 "Teachers make a difference" campaign was extensive. A survey of locals following the campaign showed that about 6,000 teachers were active in the election campaign. The result was a change in government. In the two elections (1972 and 1991) where the organization (BCTF) went all out to seek a change, there was a change. That doesn’t mean that teacher and BCTF involvement was the only factor in the electoral result. It does mean that when we have been capable of mobilizing large numbers of members to become actively involved in the electoral process along with thousands of other British Columbians with whom we can find common cause, we can bring positive change to the politics of B.C.

The current Gordon Campbell Liberal government of B.C. has given the teachers of this province good cause to throw them out. Cutbacks in education funding have resulted in 2,500 fewer teachers in the system and 113 closed schools. This has meant larger class sizes for teachers and students and less support for students by teacher librarians, learning assistance teachers, counsellors, ESL teachers, and special education teachers. The government has destroyed collective bargaining for teachers, removing the right to strike and legislatively imposing terms and conditions of employment that remove class-size limits and other teaching provisions long fought for and once won by B.C. teachers. Openly and blatantly adding insult to injury, the government attacked the professionalism of B.C. teachers by legislatively taking over the B.C. College of Teachers.

Any one of the aforementioned acts of government would be just cause for teachers to stand up and say No more! This government has tried to undo all the good work of a whole generation of teachers in advocating for a strong and stable public education system in B.C. Given our history, given our grievances, given our options, why would anyone be surprised that the BCTF Annual General Meeting decided to make it a priority to get teachers involved in the next provincial election? The BCTF has been a strong organization in this province for over 85 years, advocating for teachers, for students, and for public education. We will continue to be the effective voice of B.C. teachers through the next election, the election after that and beyond. It’s who we are.

Ken Novakowski is the BCTF’s executive director.

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