Why BC teachers are leaving their classrooms: Some context
Standing up to bullying
Teachers are told that we have a responsibility to stop bullying among our students. The core message of the in-service we are given on how to do this has one key element: teach our students to stand up to the bully.
Teachers feel that they are being bullied by government. Imposing a contract by legislation—again—rather than engaging in any real negotiations, is using government power to bully. The provincial government has refused repeated requests to meet the BCTF to discuss the very real concerns of teachers. They have communicated only in the form of legislation and expensive newspaper ads.
To get the government’s attention, teachers started a very limited job action, stopping supervision and ending paperwork. This was all within the rules created by “essential services” legislation passed by government. All the actions taken were approved by the Labour Relations Board as within the law. However, even this mild job action was, in effect, declared illegal by imposing a contract—another case of teachers feeling bullied.
Bullying behaviour continues unabated unless it is challenged. Teachers, through secret-ballot votes in their locals, have said that they must challenge the government’s bullying behaviour.
No contract for more than a year
It should be no surprise that negotiations between the BC Public Employers’ Association (BCPSEA) and the BCTF failed to reach an agreement. The government had given strict orders to BCPSEA not to engage in real bargaining. It was told that there could be no wage increases—teachers had to accept zero-zero-zero.
Further, BCPSEA could not agree to anything that related to the most fundamental concerns of teachers—conditions in the classroom.
As many commentators have noted, all BCPSEA had to do was say no, no, no, and the government would then impose its will by legislation.
Previous contract imposed by legislation
Teachers wanted to negotiate a contract last time, but in January 2002, the government simply imposed a contract by legislation. That contract eliminated the existing provisions that kept class sizes under a maximum and that ensured many support services would be there for students.
The contract also decreed a 2.5%-per-year salary increase over three years. However, that increase was not funded by government, nor were other increases in costs fully funded, such as medical premiums and other charges for government services. As a result, school boards had to cut the number of teachers. Some 2,600 teaching positions, nearly eight percent of the teaching force, were eliminated by school boards that no longer had enough funding to keep teachers in place.
Many services lost for students
Obviously, governments cannot cut large numbers of teachers without negatively affecting the delivery of service in some way. With the protection for services eliminated from the contract, counsellors, teacher-librarians, learning assistance teachers, English as a second language, and special education teaching positions were chopped by school boards in order to meet the budget requirements. These were important services lost to students who urgently needed them. Many of these supports for students and working conditions for teachers had been achieved as a trade-off on salaries. Teachers accepted a smaller salary increase in order to have more colleagues available to offer these important services that also made the teaching job more rewarding.
Seeking to restore conditions for students and for teachers
There is no doubt that having smaller classes and sufficient quality support services available in the school makes teaching more satisfying. Improved working conditions make it possible to better meet the needs of students, and that is what teachers want—for the sake of both the students and themselves. Many teachers feel severe job stress when they know they don’t have the time and resources to meet all the needs of their students. This produces stress precisely because teachers do care about doing the best job possible for all their students. That is much harder without adequate human and material resources.
As a Globe and Mail editorial said of class size, “It is a workload issue, but a legitimate one. A teacher who is always fighting fires is not teaching.”
Seeking improved conditions and a fair salary
Teachers want to improve learning conditions for their students and working conditions for themselves. They also want a fair and reasonable salary increase.
A membership poll conducted in June of 2005 sent a clear message:
- A total of 98% said that it’s important to have a collective agreement that protects learning conditions like class size and the integration of students with special needs.
- A total of 96% said that it’s important to have bargaining rights restored.
- A total of 90% said that it’s important to negotiate a salary increase.
Teachers know that the current teaching conditions do not allow them to offer the quality of education or meet individual needs to the extent that would be possible with better conditions.
BC teachers have also looked at the salaries being paid to colleagues in Alberta and Ontario. In those provinces, teachers with the same qualifications and experience make more than $10,000 more annually for the same work.
Can the BC government afford a reasonable settlement?
Yes, absolutely. The BC government had a $2-billion-dollar surplus last year and is projected to have another significant surplus this year. When the BC Liberals were first elected, they immediately created a large deficit by cutting taxes. This deficit was then given as the reason for making the cuts in many services, including education.
Economic growth has now produced a budget surplus, even without increasing taxes to the previous rates. In their election platform in 2001, the BC Liberals said they would “Maintain and increase education funding levels by increasing revenues through economic growth.” The current year has been a good growth year of 3.9%. Projections by economists expect only a slight reduction in that level of growth over the next two years, still coming in at over 3%. Adding amounts that reflect these percentages over the next three years would provide enough to restore most of the lost services.
What about the impact on students of teacher actions?
Education does matter and time in school is important. Inconvenience for families is a reality. However, if all other approaches to making improvements are exhausted, sometimes it is necessary to withdraw services as part of the process of gaining improved conditions.
Because of all the media discussion of the issue, it may seem like teachers have frequently been on strike. The reality is that since 1993, when provincial bargaining was introduced under the NDP government of Mike Harcourt, not one single school day has been lost due to a teacher strike. There have been some local strikes by school support workers, and in those instances teachers have respected the third-party picket lines. But in the last dozen years, BC schools have never once been closed due to a teacher strike.
In fact, in a number of school districts, students regularly lose days in school, but it is as a result of budget restrictions, not strikes. Several districts have reduced schools to four-day weeks or nine-day fortnights.
Teachers believe that they must take action because they believe that any harm in the short-term will produce improvements for students for the longer term.
Collective bargaining is a human right
Teachers believe it is not fair or acceptable in a free society for an employer to be able to unilaterally set the conditions of work. There has to be some process that involves both employers and employees for reaching agreement on what conditions are acceptable.
It is because of the lack of other systems that protect the civil rights of employees that most countries, including Canada, have adopted treaties through the International Labour Organization of the United Nations that provide that governments must grant the right for workers to organize into unions and to have the right to strike.
The ILO reviewed BC’s legislation in 2003 and concluded that Bill 18, which imposed essential services, should be repealed. They said that the limit on teacher bargaining rights through legislation violates the treaty provisions agreed to by Canada.
The current actions of the BC government would also fail to meet the obligations that Canada has undertaken in the ILO conventions.
Hasn’t government restored conditions with the $150 million provided to school districts?
These funds will make some improvements this school year, but they do not come close to restoring learning conditions and provide no funding for any salary increase whatsoever.
Between 2001 and 2004, the school system lost 2,609 teaching positions. About 700 of those can be attributed to declining enrolment, but 1,900 positions simply reduced services to students through larger classes and fewer support teachers. School districts have reported to the province that they are hiring 630 more teachers this year. This restores less than one third of the number of teaching positions cut beyond those related to declining enrolment.
In addition, teachers are being replaced in some cases by education assistants without professional training. While 2,609 teaching positions disappeared, boards hired 265 more education assistants in 2004 over 2001. They are projecting hiring another 507 this year. This means that library technicians have often replaced teacher-librarians. Special education assistants have been hired to work with students with special needs, instead of teachers with the training and teaching experience to provide a rich education that meets diverse needs in our integrated schools.
While there has been some positive movement in restoring some of the services lost, more is required, and that is what teachers are looking for in this round of bargaining.
How can parents help?
Obviously, teachers think that their goals for improved learning and working conditions and a reasonable salary increase are legitimate. While these clearly would benefit teachers, they also believe that students will benefit through more service and a stable education system.
Parents can help by encouraging the BC government to talk with the representatives of teachers so that both parties can agree on a process that will limit disruption to education.
updated Oct. 6, 2005