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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 19, Number 5, March 2007

Historical perspectives

90 years of BCTF programs and services

by Ken Novakowski

The BCTF today, after 90 years of representing the public school teachers of the province, has become a significant public-sector union in the labour community, an effective advocate for public education with government and the media, and an organization that continues to represent all of the interests of its members—economic, professional, and social. From its inception, the BCTF developed a commitment and culture that has made it a very democratic union, a diverse and all-encompassing service organization, and a public voice for teachers that has served the profession well on a wide range of issues. This article is intended to give some historical perspective to how the BCTF and its many programs and services came into existence and grew into the BCTF we know today.

Two teacher strikes, Victoria in 1919 and New Westminster in 1921, and dramatic action by Langley teachers in 1939 helped to put in place a system of teacher bargaining that would ultimately lead to improvements in the economic welfare of teachers. This system of bargaining, which ultimately led to compulsory arbitration to resolve disputes, was in place until full-scope local bargaining was legislated in 1987. And for the first 30 years of our existence we had to sign up all members and collect fees every year, before legislation in 1947 gave us statutory compulsory membership and recognized the Code of Ethics we instituted in 1943.

And the BCTF started early (1919) to advocate for a teacher pension policy resulting finally in a Teachers’ Pension Act in 1929, establishing the basis of pensions as years of service and contribution level. Indeed, our first province-wide job action in March of 1971, was a one-day provincial strike over pensions. We continued to work on pensions until we achieved the fine pensions we have today under our joint-trusteed BC Teachers’ Pension Plan.

In 1939, the BCTF started its own Sick Benefit Fund to assist teachers who were ill and had run out of sick leave. This, of course, was the genesis of our Salary Indemnity Plan of today. And from the organization’s beginnings, we strove to improve the tenure and professional rights of teachers, highlighting an early demand for teachers to make their own decisions about the work in their classrooms and about instructional materials and curriculum.

The BC Teacher, although it has changed over the years in form and format, has been our official publication since 1919, starting first as The Educator and becoming The Teacher in 1921. And in 1940, we established a service that remains to this day unique amongst teacher organizations—BCTF Lesson Aids Service. Teachers develop their own teaching materials that the Federation makes available to other teachers at cost.

In 1957, the BCTF began to actively promote the creation of Provincial Specialist Associations (PSAs). Prior to that time there were loosely organized sessions at AGMs of "specialist groupings." PSAs grew and expanded forming PSA Council and today consist of 33 PSAs that play an active role in the professional lives of teachers.

In 1961, we launched our international program beginning with an initial allocation of $1 per member, moving in 1983 to allocate 1.86% of our active membership fee each year to solidarity work with teacher unions in South and Central America and in Southern Africa, spawning one of the most successful union international programs in the country.

In the 1960s, we launched major working and learning conditions initiatives giving rise to the WLC program, later integrating into our bargaining work. The fight for smaller class sizes and improved classroom conditions for our students has been a hallmark of our public advocacy for over half a century. And, of course, it continues today.

In 1970, the BCTF launched a Status of Women program and several years later the Program Against Racism. Both these programs helped spawn a generation of social activists in the union—work that continues today as part of the Federation’s Social Justice program, established by the 1998 AGM.

In 1978, the BCTF established the first of its BCTF Associates’ program, which put in place the concept of "teachers teaching teachers," an initiative that eventually gave rise to the Staff Representative Training Program (now School Union Representative Training Program) seven years later. And in the early 1980s we began our Internal Mediation Service providing skilled, trained members to help mediate conflicts in schools--another service unique to the BCTF. In 1986, we began our Program Quality Teach, a program that thrives to this day based on promoting teacher inquiry and reflection into their teaching practice.

The demands of full-scope bargaining, begun in 1987, gave rise to grievance support to locals, assistance in arbitrations, strike support, and a whole range of bargaining-related activities undertaken by the Federation to support first local bargaining and then when it was imposed in 1994—provincial bargaining. Also in the early 1990s, we began expanding our Salary Indemnity Program to include a significant teacher rehabilitation component. This program today serves teachers in practically every school district in the province.

In 1991, we established a Research Department and in 1994, a program to provide support and services to our Francophone members. In 2000, we established a Peer Support program and in that same year began our Aboriginal Education program, providing support to Aboriginal teachers and working to increase the success of Aboriginal students in public schools.

In 1997, we launched a full-fledged health and safety program in the Federation with a focus on prevention, and it later expanded to include extensive work with members on WCB cases and appeals.

This historical emergence of Federation programs and services over many generations must be seen alongside all that we essentially do that is central to our organization—defend public education, advocate for improved classroom conditions for teachers and students, struggle for improved bargaining and professional rights for members, and fight for a just and progressive society. History shows that we have never eliminated any significant Federation program or service. Hence our uniqueness as a member-driven organization that successfully continues to represent the best collective interests of all of our individual members and has done so since 1917.

Ken Novakowski is the BCTF’s executive director.

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