On May 26, teachers across British Colombia (B.C.) took to the picket lines in a series of rotating strikes, protesting the unwillingness of the B.C. government to bargain on key issues. The teachers, represented by the B.C. Teachers’ Federation (BCTF), have maintained that class size and composition are equally a part of contract negotiations as wages. The government, represented by the B.C. Public School Employers’ Association (BCPSEA), is adamant that teachers should accept lesser wage increases and that class size and composition are not negotiable. This is only the latest dispute in a 12-year saga that has left a lasting mark on the labour movement of B.C.
The present struggle began in 2002 when the B.C. Liberals used legislation to remove all provisions relating to class size, class composition, and specialist-to-teacher ratios from the existing contract. The term ‘specialist’ could refer to support staff, librarians, or teachers for students with special needs.
In 2012 the B.C. Supreme Court ruled the legislation unconstitutional and in response the BC Liberals tabled a bill that was later referred to by Justice Susan Griffin as “virtually identical” to the 2002 legislation. This new legislation was ruled unconstitutional in 2014 but the government has taken the ruling to the B.C. Court of Appeal. If the ruling is upheld, the government will have to retroactively restore the sections of the contract removed in 2002.
The use of legislation to dictate contract terms has sullied relations between the teachers and the government. As teachers have tried to regain their rights to collective bargaining on class size and composition, negotiations have been tense if not impossible. Consequently, the government has used legislation to impose subsequent contracts and limit labour action. Each round of negotiations ends with conditions worse than the previous round, and this has been going on for 12 years.
The current negotiations continue the cycle of worsening relations and escalated struggle. The previous contract expired in June 2013 and negotiations have been slow and fruitless. Early on, Christy Clark, as part of her election rhetoric, indicated that the BCPSEA would be seeking a 10-year contract.
As the BCTF was preparing to enter “Stage 1” of labour action (refusal to supervise students outside of class time or work with administrators unless required under the essential services order), the BCPSEA reduced its demand to a 6-year contract, offering a 7.25% raise over the length of the contract. At the same time, the BCPSEA told the BCTF that teachers’ wages would be cut by 5% for the duration of Stage 1 labour action, stating that reduced work would receive reduced wages. If the teachers entered Stage 2, their wages would be cut by 10% for the duration.
The BCTF has demanded a pay rise of 15.9% over four years, increased benefits, and a return of the previous provisions relating to class size, class composition, and specialist-to-teacher ratios. While the dispute is being framed by the BCPSEA as being mostly about wages, the majority of the cost associated with the proposed contract stems from the class size, composition, and specialist ratio provisions. Throughout the negotiations, the BCPSEA has continued to act as though the court rulings striking down the limitations on teachers collective bargaining rights had not occurred.
The BCTF voted to enter Stage 2 labour action during the week of May 26 – 30, which consists of rotating strikes across the school districts of B.C., each district striking for one day of the week. The strikes were spread out such that most regions would not see multiple school districts striking on the same day (the exception being Vancouver). Members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) have shown strong support for the teachers on the picket lines.
The BCPSEA has responded to labour action by setting restrictions on teachers working hours. Specifically, as of May 26 teachers are instructed not to work during recess, lunch hour, or more than 45-minutes before their first class or 45-minutes after their last class. As of June 25, a lockout would be imposed on high school teachers and as of June 27, a total lockout would go into effect.
The BCTF immediately announced the difficulty this would cause with graduation ceremonies and exam marking, which they had carefully left unaffected by their labour action. On May 26, as rotating strikes began, Education Minister Peter Fassbender clarified that all school-sponsored voluntary or extracurricular activities would be exempted from the work restrictions. Both parents and teachers have been left confused by the quickly-shifting state of the struggle.
With negotiations stalled, it is apparent that the BC Liberals and Christy Clark have no clear path to ending this dispute. Back-to-work legislation would continue the cycle of dysfunctional relations between the BCTF and the BCPSEA. Also, a victory by the BCTF could invigorate the labour movement. Which is precisely why teachers, parents, unions and all members of the working class must show solidarity with teachers and the BCTF. A strong movement in support of the teachers would send a clear message that anti-worker tactics and policies will not be tolerated. It is time to end the cycle of austerity and cutbacks and support our teachers!
by Adam Beech