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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 16, Number 2, November/December 2003

Professionalism and unionism in teaching

Excerpt from the Report of the Sullivan Royal Commission on Education, 1988, p. 145-146


Historically, teachers have worked in organizations. Since the time of the one-room school, the daily transactions between teachers and students have been mediated by a lay school board and its appointed administrative officials. Since their inception, school boards have participated in raising and distributing funds and in supervising teachers through the establishment of rules, policies, and procedures. While the manner and means by which school boards and their officials have exercised control over teachers and over the ways in which teachers practice their craft have changed considerably, the basic organizational context of teaching has endured.

Teachers are salaried professionals. In addition, in B.C. they are now also members of a trade union as defined by the Industrial Relations Act. Trade union membership, however, does not negate professional status; teachers still possess specialized knowledge, are bound by codes of professional practise, and are still entrusted with a unique educational responsibility.

A close consideration of oral and written submissions to the commission revealed several ambiguities and anomalies associated with teaching. Most noticeably, there appear to be conflict and confusion in the minds of the public with respect to teachers’ simultaneous status. Apparently, the public views the objectives of a trade union in marked contrast with those of a profession. A profession is seen to provide a specialized and valued service to the public; in theory at least, it is accountable to the public interest for the conduct and performance of its members. A profession, therefore, typically has a governing body that establishes standards of entry, certification, conduct, and performance, and which imposes sanctions against members who fail to meet the conditions for continued practice.

Unions exist to advance collectively the interests of their membership. Typically, unions do not establish conditions for entry, nor do they establish standards of conduct and performance. Unions are under no obligation to act in the public interest. Rather, they protect and serve their members and, in so doing, act to preserve their own security. The means by which a union generally serves its members is through the establishment of a collective agreement with an employer.

Put simply, a union of professionals is not a contradiction in terms. Professionals of all types are included in bargaining units—in the federal public service, for example, lawyers, accountants, engineers, and architects are included in bargaining units in the professional and scientific category. Self-employed professionals often engage in collective bargaining—physicians, for example, collectively negotiate fee schedules with senior government. In the public service case above, the professions listed are salaried employees, governed not only by their job descriptions and obligations to their governmental employer, but also by the established standards of professional governing bodies.

Teachers are also salaried professionals and, like many others in that category, perform their work in the context of a formal employment relationship with an employer—in this case, the local school board. Such a context does produce some tension in that responsibility to the standards of the profession are separated from the supervisory authority of the school board and its management personnel. To establish formal influence over how they perform their work and the conditions under which they work (two characteristics of a profession), teachers, like unions, take collective action—they bargain.

The results of the collective bargaining process serve to constrain both employer and employee. The actions of both school boards and teachers are controlled and influenced to varying extents by formal contract. Ideally, the results of teacher–board collective bargaining would require, and bring into effect, genuine board consultation with teachers before management decisions pertaining to teachers’ work are made.

Past experience with other professional groups, and with teacher groups in other jurisdictions, leads to the conclusion that collective bargaining, though adversarial in nature, is an appropriate mechanism through which the interests of the public—through the elected school board—and the professional ambitions of teachers can be accommodated. Recent provincial legislation granting union certification to teachers simply formalizes and legitimizes the employer–employee relationship that has always existed between school boards and teachers. Such action does not de-professionalize teaching in any way.

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