BCTF Online Museum

Burning crossTen years that changed it all
From a cross burning to class size in contract

Late October, 1981 at 2:30 a.m., the phone rang loudly, waking me from a deep sleep. Rattled by the call, I was horrified to see a huge wooden cross burning on our front lawn. The police arrived an hour later; their subsequent investigation turned up no answers.

Why me? I was President of the Langley Teachers' Association (LTA) and in the middle of negotiations for a new agreement. Unlike teachers in the rest of Canada and other employee groups in BC, our employer was only required to negotiate salaries and bonuses with teachers. BCTF locals across the province wanted to change that and we were running a high-profile public campaign to expand teacher bargaining rights. Some in our community didn't like this. Was that the reason for the cross burning? A scary start to my teacher activism.

In our efforts to get the board to negotiate duty-free lunch breaks for teachers, the LTA staged a series of “chilli lunches” in several venues, inviting teachers to leave school and come for lunch. Principals and vice-principals, then members of the association, took over supervising students. Our slogan “Even Teachers Deserve a Lunch Break” caught on. This demonstration of teacher support and resolve resulted in a duty-free lunch hour provision in our agreement.

Operation Solidary rally photo

In July of 1983, the provincial government launched a massive legislative assault on public services including public education, human labour, and women's and tenant's rights, turning the clock back on decades of social progress for British Columbians. The response was swift-tens of thousands of people rose in protest. Operation Solidarity included all BC unions and the Solidarity Coalition united community rights and environmental groups. More than 25,000 people rallied in Victoria in July, 50,000 at Empire Stadium in August and 80,000 took to the streets of Vancouver in October. Teachers from summer conference flooded downtown Vancouver, educating citizens at “Street Corner Schoolhouses” about the harm of the cutbacks to public education. Support was everywhere.

With government ignoring the protests, Operation Solidarity staged a series of strikes by unions. The BCTF became an early part of this action, despite the fact teachers had voted against asking for the right to strike only two years earlier.

I was on the BCTF Bargaining Division staff at this time and experienced the inside workings of the BCTF, marvelling at the tremendous courage of our President Larry Kuehn. He led teachers out for three days in early November as the Operation Solidarity strike escalated. Many people, including many teachers, were unhappy when an abrupt end to the action was reached with Premier Bill Bennett over the Remembrance Day long weekend. But gains had been made; teachers facing arbitrary layoffs because of cut backs now had the legal right to negotiate seniority, layoff, and severance provisions. At the 1984 BCTF AGM, teachers voted to honour all picket lines; the existing practice of crossing the picket lines of support staff co-workers when they were on strike was stopped.

In April, 1987, I was back teaching in Langley and newly elected to the BCTF executive when the provincial government introduced Bills 19 and 20 into the legislature and into the lives of teachers. The legislation was loaded with both challenges and opportunities for teachers and the BCTF. In summary, it:

  • ended statutory BCTF membership for teachers.
  • offered an option for teacher locals: the union model with full scope of bargaining and the right to strike/lockout or the association model with limited scope and an arbitration process.
  • removed principals and vice-principals from the bargaining unit.
  • established a mandatory College of Teachers to be paid for by teachers.
  • established an employer-friendly Industrial Relations Council to replace the Labour Relations Board.  

Proud to be a Teacher buttonThe BCTF quickly organized a day of protest on April 28. BCTF President Elsie McMurphy led us out, despite being served with an order threatening charges of sedition. Teachers followed. On June 1, they also joined a one-day general strike called by the BC Federation of Labour. Ignoring the protests, the government passed the bills into law.

“BCTF—Now More Than Ever” became the teachers' rallying cry that fall as the Federation co-ordinated a campaign to sign up every teacher in the province into the BCTF. Simultaneously, locals were to choose either the union or association model through member votes in each local. Taken together these actions were the remaking of the BCTF. Every local chose the union model and over 99% of the teachers in BC signed up to BCTF membership. BCTF-endorsed candidates in every region were elected to the new College of Teachers Board. This was a powerful demonstration of teacher solidarity and teacher support for the strong leadership of the BCTF.

In the fall of 1987, I was president of the Langley Teachers' Association, getting ready for our first round of full collective bargaining as a union; virtually all terms and conditions of employment were now on the table and we had the right to strike. I spent the first half of 1988 at the Langley bargaining table. After years of collective begging with our employer, we were now equals at the bargaining table. We tabled a whole range of items over which teachers previously had little or no say. Having the right to strike was a powerful inducement for boards to bargain.

Operation Solidary button

My role changed that year when I was elected BCTF First Vice-President. I was now travelling the province providing BCTF support to locals as they sought their first contracts. Locals were negotiating duty-free lunch breaks, preparation time, posting and filling, teacher evaluation, union membership, and much more. And yes, there were some strikes.

I will never forget the experience, as Vice-President and then as President, of attending local meetings with member turnout in the range of 90%. Teachers attended because a lot was at stake and, for the first time ever, they could participate in decisions that would have an ongoing impact on their teaching conditions and rights as employees.

After two rounds of historical local bargaining were complete, I left my leadership role at the Federation for the classroom. The wait for full collective bargaining rights had been long but now we teachers could influence our work lives and use collective bargaining to help build a strong and healthy quality public education system in BC. It had been an exciting, even heady, decade. Indeed!

Ten years that changed teaching, teachers, and the BCTF 

1981-82 1991-92
Teachers crossed co-worker picket lines Teachers honour co-worker picket lines
Teachers limited to negotiate salaries and bonuses Teachers bargain virtually all terms and conditions of employment
Teachers turn down asking government for right to strike Teachers have the right to strike  
BCTF membership is required by statute for all BC teachers BCTF membership is provided for in collective agreements
Principals and vice-principals are members of the BCTF/locals Principals and vice-principals no longer members of the BCTF/locals


By Ken Novakowski, retired BCTF President
Reprinted from Teacher magazine,Volume 29, Number 2, January/February 2017.