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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 13, Number 7, May/June 2001

Standing on the shoulders of teachers who have gone before:
Providing a legacy for those who follow us

by Al Cornes

In the beginning, there were few rights and many responsibilities. The 1872 Public School Act of British Columbia organized teachers into teacher institutes dominated by government officials. In a far-flung province of Canada, collective rights were not recognized, and while labour organization was present in the mining towns, unions were seen as a conspiracy against trade.

B.C. teachers had common-law contracts, worked under what we would see as intolerable conditions, and came and went at the behest of local school authorities.

What separates our condition from that of our predecessors is the evolution of democracy and the collective efforts of those teachers who organized themselves into the B.C. Teachers’ Federation to achieve full collective-bargaining rights.

Turn back the clock, and imagine yourself at the founding convention of the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation, in 1917. Teacher salaries at the time were determined by school board policy. In many districts, the teacher who wanted a salary increase had to appear before what was called an "annual school meeting"—an assembly of district ratepayers. There was no equality of pay between men and women or between secondary teachers and elementary teachers. The logic of forming a provincial organization with objectives of dealing with the economic, professional, and social concerns of teachers seemed pretty compelling for those in attendance.

Imagine yourself as a member of the Victoria teachers who in 1919 undertook the first teacher strike in the British Empire. The strike, about salaries, lasted two days. The result was a negotiated settlement.

Imagine yourself as a member of the Langley teachers in the 1939 protest against the school board’s proposed salary list for the coming year. The teachers invoked the new 1937 provincial law providing for compulsory arbitration. The arbitration favoured the teachers. The school board responded by firing 14 of the teachers concerned. An independent provincial Board of Reference reinstated them, but, in response, the school board arbitrarily demoted and transferred the teacher activists. Ultimately, the government fired the school board and imposed an official trustee, but only after the teachers had defied the school board by appearing at their original teaching assignments.

Imagine yourself as a Vancouver teacher taking mass action in December 1968 in support of a first learning and working conditions contract. The contract was achieved and led the way for other similar agreements.

Imagine yourself as a Surrey teacher in 1974 walking off the job and travelling to Victoria in support of reduced class sizes. The action pushed the government of the day to negotiate with the BCTF a commitment to reduce the pupil/teacher ratio in the province by one in each of the next three years. That had a dramatic affect on class sizes: PTR went from 22.68 in 1972-73 to 16.7 in 1981-82, and thousands of new teachers were added to the school system.

Similarly, a six-day walkout of Terrace teachers in 1981, led to the achievement of a personnel-practices agreement that broadened the scope of negotiations for all teachers.

Full collective-bargaining rights for teachers were ultimately achieved in 1987 teacher-bargaining legislation. During the negotiations that followed, teachers negotiated a full set of terms including: class size, duty-free lunch, fair personnel practice, professional development rights, and a healthy salary increase. In the many negotiations that followed, hundreds of negotiations were concluded without reference to strikes or lockouts. Where necessary, teachers did undertake job action in the face of school boards’ acting unfairly in the negotiating process.

Our history presents a clear lesson on the importance of collective bargaining rights.

In the broad context, collective-bargaining rights cannot be seen as separate from other democratic and human rights of a civil society. Rights and laws equalize the playing field between those who have wealth and power and those who don’t. Collective rights equalize the workplace power imbalance between those who own and control the system and those who provide their services, be they professional or unskilled.

The BCTF’s bargaining history points to the fact that behind every significant achievement of rights has been the threat and the ability to withdraw our services. When the collective is strong and our rights unfettered, the prospect of making gains for the system are good. When the collective is weak and our rights have been tampered with, the prospect of making gains for the system are poor. It’s as simple as that.

The B.C. Liberal Party’s proposal to make education an essential service will harm the current even playing field for employees and employer by stripping many of our members of their right to strike. With many teachers being ordered to continue working, what incentive is there for our employers to settle a labour dispute?

The last thing education needs right now is a change in the bargaining system that makes it totally unworkable. There has not been a single teacher-initiated strike since 1993. Prior to the introduction of provincial bargaining, in the first four-and-a-half years of teachers’ collective bargaining, a B.C. student lost less than eight-tenths of a day of classes per year. That’s less than the time lost to sniffles, snowfalls, and family vacations. There has been no measurable long-term negative effect on students’ progress because of any teacher strike.

But rather than imagine yourself as a BCTF leader trying to achieve a new collective agreement with the removal of significant bargaining clout, find a few moments to:

  1. become fully informed about our current negotiations—BCTF web site is www.bctf.ca.
  2. speak to your staff rep or president about getting the teacher message out to the community.
  3. talk to your friends and neighbours about the improvements in your community school that have been negotiated by teachers.

The alternative is to leave a legacy of inaction, poor contracts, and deteriorating teaching conditions for both ourselves and new teachers, an alternative that none of us wants to see.

Al Cornes is the BCTF’s assistant executive director.

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