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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 19, Number 3, Nov./Dec. 2006

Historical perspectives
BCTF’s relationship with organized labour

by Ken Novakowski

On Friday, October 27, I attended a meeting of the Canadian Labour Congress Executive Council as an observer. The occasion was the seating of Jinny Sims as a member of the Executive Council representing the BCTF. It was an historic moment for our organization, which throughout its 90-year history has been formally in and out of the house of labour, but has always had a strong working relationship with other organizations in our province and country representing working people. Becoming a member of the CLC following the successful member vote in April 2006, we joined three other teacher unions that have been on the CLC executive council for many years—the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation and the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association since 1996, and the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario since 2000. Together, the four teacher organizations represent about 140,000 Canadian teachers.

It was 50 years ago, in 1956, that the BCTF decided to end its formal relationship with organized labour. In 1942, members voted 56% to join the Canadian Trades and Labour Congress. In that same time period, the BCTF took its first province-wide strike vote, which carried by a similar 57%. That vote was never acted on because the federal government brought in a national wage freeze. At the time, the labour movement was pressing the government for social security and labour regulations. Teachers played an active role in the Trades and Labour Congress and in local labour councils. When the Canadian Labour Congress was created in 1956, it involved the merger of the Trades and Labour Congress with the more militant industrial unions that had emerged in the late 1930s and 1940s. The 1956 BCTF AGM voted narrowly to turn down a motion to join the Canadian Labour Congress and thus began our 50-year absence in the national halls of labour.

During those 50 years, the BCTF worked with the labour movement on key issues and in major campaigns and in 2003, we voted by 58% to join the BC Federation of Labour for a three-year trial period. It was not an overwhelming vote, but it was clear that teachers now felt it was important to formalize our membership in the house of labour. Our collective agreement and our collective rights were under assault from the Campbell government, as were the rights and conditions of other public-sector unions. We clearly needed to work more closely with each other.

There were two notable actions that we took with labour during our 50-year hiatus. In 1983, the Bill Bennett government introduced 26 pieces of legislation intended to strip the social-security safety net that was so carefully built by successive governments since World War II. His legislative package included granting public-sector employers the right to lay off any employee without cause. For teachers, who had no seniority rights or provisions, this was a threatening piece of legislation so we stood together with other working people in Operation Solidarity and on November 8, 1983, went out on strike around the province. We were out for three days and we did get the right to bargain seniority severance provisions into our salary agreements. But more importantly, we turned a corner in understanding the importance of solidarity and in standing up for others.

Prior to our solidarity experience of 1983, when CUPE or other organized support workers went on strike in our schools, teachers went to work. Yes, we crossed their picket lines. We refused to do their work but that was the extent of our support for their strike. Following the experience of November 1983, when teachers put up picket lines at every public school in the province teachers changed their position on this critical labour unity matter and thereafter refused to cross the picket lines of their co-workers out on strike.

And on June 1, 1987, when the BC Federation of Labour called a general strike over government anti-labour legislation, teachers and the BCTF participated fully. We really were part of the labour movement but had not yet made the organizational decision to join.

Earlier this year, in April, BCTF members voted by 78% to join the Canadian Labour Congress and thus to continue our membership in the BC Federation of Labour. Our provincial strike of October 2005 demonstrated the power of solidarity; we need to be together with our friends and allies, both for them to be there for us and for us to be there for them.

Following the CLC Executive Council meeting on October 27, we attended a dinner at the Museum of Civilization commemorating the 50-year history of the Canadian Labour Congress.

It felt right for teachers to be there with that broad cross section of Canadians, over three million strong, who are fighting for a better Canada for their members and for all Canadians.

Ken Novakowski is the BCTF’s executive director.

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