If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ll know that I’m a teacher. If you live in my Canadian province of BC, you’ll know that I’m currently on strike. I haven’t really wanted to write about this, but as time goes on … well, here I am writing about it.
Back in 2002, the Liberal government of BC unilaterally stripped many items from our lawfully-negotiated contract. With the stroke of a pen, BC teachers lost all rights to bargain for any working and learning conditions: things like limits to class size, specified caseloads for specialist teachers, rules as to the numbers of special-needs permitted in a class, guaranteed support for those special-needs students, the length of the school day, and the number of hours of instruction in the school year. They called it choice and flexibility. We called it unconstitutional. We took them to court.
That government had previously done the same contract-gutting to the province’s health care workers. They went to court. The health care workers won. The government was ordered to restore the stripped language to the health care workers’ contract and to pay compensation to those affected workers and their unions. You would have thought that the government would have learned from this. But no. They tried again with the teachers of the province.
And in 2011, we won the court case. The government’s actions were again found to be unconstitutional. They were again ordered to restore the stripped language and to enter into free and full collective bargaining with us. They were given a year to make the necessary reparations.
But what did the government do instead? In 2012, they came up with new legislation that basically took those very same contract items, anything to do with teachers’ working conditions (which, coincidentally, are kids’ learning conditions), away from us AGAIN. Same song, different dance. We took them to court again.
This past January, we won this second court case. The government was found to have again acted unconstitutionally in limiting teachers’ bargaining rights. Again, they were ordered to restore the contract items that they had twice tried to remove, and this time they were also ordered to pay all court costs and to pay our union two million dollars in damages.
And what has the government done instead? They have appealed the case, and we don’t yet know when the court dates will be.
It’s kind-of ironic that the whole reason that the Liberals started all this by gutting our legally-negotiated contract in 2002 was because they said they couldn’t afford it, that our education system was just too expensive and they needed to trim the education budget even more than they already had. I wonder how much money has been spent on the two court cases, and the upcoming appeal, so far? Could that money perhaps have been put to better use – like back into education? Just a thought …
Anyway, these are the people that BC teachers are dealing with. We have been without a contract since June 2013. Talks have been on and off since about February of 2013. I can’t really call them “negotiations”, since the government hasn’t really negotiated with us yet in the true sense of the word – you know, where one party demands one thing, the other responds with yes or no, how about this instead? Like where there is compromise on both sides? No, what’s been happening so far is that we table our demands and the government, after a few days, responds with “No. There is no money.” We have decreased our salary demands. The government has answered with “No. There is no money.” We have come up with some creative proposals as to how we can start working towards returning to our 2002 levels of service. The government has simply said “No. There is no money.”
The thing is, how can any Liberal government representative say that with a straight face? There was scads of money for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Money flowed like a river to put a new retractable roof on that big stadium in downtown Vancouver, BC Place. Our teacher-bashing premier, Christy Clark, was able to get her mitts on a whole whack of money to give government staffers a sizeable raise of something like 18% last year (although I believe she later backtracked, given the huge backlash from the taxpayers of the province). There have been ginormous tax cuts to Liberal-supporting businesses all over the province, just so those businesses can make even more profit. Yet they want me to believe that there is no money for the kids of this province and those who educate them???
And that’s why BC teachers like me are walking the picket line now. This government has cut and cut and cut education funding over the past 15 years at least, to the point where we just can’t do it any more. This government has twice tried to create laws to deny teachers our constitutional rights to bargain and to strip important and legally-negotiated items from our contracts – and it’s not over in the courts yet. Many times in the past, teachers accepted little or no wage increases (I personally haven’t had a salary hike in five years, I think. When you consider the ever-rising cost of living, my buying power has actually dropped rather drastically in those five years.) as a trade-off to improve contract items such as class size limits and strong guidelines as to how many special-needs kids can be in one class. Now they want us to accept virtually no salary increase AND no working conditions enshrined in our contract? The profound disrespect and contempt that this government has shown me and my colleagues is absolutely astounding, as is the disdain they have shown for the Supreme Court of BC.
No, I didn’t want to leave my classroom in disarray last Thursday and simply walk out of the school with my personal belongings. No, I would have much preferred to complete my end-of-year reading assessments, to write my report card comments as carefully and thoughtfully as I usually do, to finish filing all my paperwork properly, to thoroughly tidy up my classroom the way I do every June, to say a proper goodbye to all the kids and their parents, even to clean out the effing fridge in the staffroom!
But instead, I’m on the picket line at 6:30 every morning. There is no more money in my union’s strike fund, so we are not getting any money at all right now. We are doing it because we hope, we pray, we BELIEVE that somehow, there is a compromise to be struck, and that things will get better in the near future, and that it will all be worth it for kids and for teachers.
Because continuing on with the chronic lack of education funding in this province is not a very palatable option. Not at all.