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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 16, Number 3, January/February 2004

Teachers attend BCFed convention
"We walk over bridges others have built"

by Sandra Davie

Those words were spoken by Ken Georgetti at the B.C. Federation of Labour Convention, November 24–26, 2003, in Vancouver. I was privileged to attend as one of the 900 delegates. As a teacher, I felt great pride Monday morning when the 100-strong BCTF delegation took its place on the floor. We wore blue t-shirts that said "Proud to be a teacher" and "Proud to be Affiliated," and our presence was acknowledged by a standing ovation. Little did we realize what an intense intellectual and emotional experience we were in for in the next three days.

A BCTF resolution asking for support against Bill 51 was first on the agenda. We asked other members of the Fed to support us in our opposition to Bill 51 and to the dismantling of our democratic and representational college. It was heartening to hear speeches of support and understanding, and when the vote was called, our motion was endorsed. We had walked together over one of Georgetti’s "bridges." Having our resolution so heartily endorsed was emotional enough, but that was only the beginning.

As the convention continued, we heard speaker after speaker talk about the dismantling of their unions and the destruction of services for those in need. This is truly the era of disposable people, with working people, the young, the weak, the sick, and the elderly taking the brunt of the cuts. Particularly jarring were the descriptions of people having to leave their jobs, with no clear sense of what will happen to them, and having to abandon the people who rely on them for professional and compassionate care. Losing your job is bad enough, but losing your friends and knowing that the people who replace you will be paid at a considerably lower salary were wrenching for many of the brothers and sisters who shared their pain and anger with us. We all began to realize that the bridges that had been built for us by others were being dismantled. We all began to realize the necessity of taking a stand together to stop the dismantling and to build more bridges for those who come after us.

On the second day of the convention, we attended workshops designed to help us in our struggle to fight the Liberal agenda. Highlights of the workshops for me were the messages that we can fight back and that we can win. Danny Mallet and Lilly Olson spoke of the campaign mounted in Saskatchewan that resulted in a fourth term for the NDP Lorne Calvert, the newly elected premier, acknowledged the work of the Labour Movement and its campaign. The united labour campaign, which stressed that the province works and that economic progress should be for the many not just the few, was crucial to the NDP victory. Touching core values that support a system of universal healthcare and educational opportunities and reaching out to the population that has lost faith in government were lessons that were emphasized as critical to the election victory. The Saskatchewan campaign, which began 18 months before the election, began because no one at the time felt that the NDP could win the next election. But instead of capitulating and accepting defeat as inevitable, many people walked across bridges and engaged the young, the downtrodden, and the cynical. The campaign was built around issues and values and a discussion of the type of society that we both want and need. The lesson was obvious: we can do the same in B.C. And it’s time to get started.

Another powerful workshop presenter was Carolyn Leckie, member of the Scottish Socialist Party and sitting member of the Scottish Parliament. Leckie decried the actions of Campbell’s government and compared what is happening here to what happened in Britain under Maggie Thatcher. Thatcher went after the unions, and when she broke the miners’ strike, she effectively disarmed the British Labour Movement. It has taken 20 years for the Labour Movement to recover, but it has rebuilt bridges and is reaching out in communities to build bridges for the future. Leckie related horror stories of public-private enterprises, privatization of public works, and the destruction of working conditions. Her ultimate message, however, was that by standing together we can fight back.

A third workshop also emphasized the importance of reaching out to individuals, groups, and organizations that do not share a Labour perspective but who do share a concern for the quality of life that we want in this province. We need to engage one another in discussing our similarities and to build alliances from our shared perspective. Given what is happening to workers who have seen their contracts ripped up and work of 20 years thrown away, to people who rely on a strong social support network, to children whose education is being jeopardized by underfunding, to the sick whose health is compromised by lack of adequate services, and to the elderly whose final years should be ones of comfort and support not loss of service and support, we must stand up and fight back together. If not us, then who?

The motto of the B.C. Fed is "What we desire for ourselves, we desire for all." I thought of those words over the three days of the convention as I thought of Ken Georgetti’s "bridges" and I thought of Lorne Calvert’s words: "Our goal should be to build more bridges for others to walk forward." Now that’s truly a lesson for a group of teachers, isn’t it?

Sandra Davie teaches at Prince George Secondary School, Prince George.

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