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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 12, Number 3, Nov./Dec. 1999

So that’s the way it happened

by Ken Novakowski

When I began teaching, in Langley School District in 1971, I was paid the same as the other teachers in the district who had the same years of education and experience.

In 1971, B.C. teachers were still 17 years away from gaining full collective-bargaining rights, but our locals were recognized bargaining units for salaries and benefits, and the BCTF was there to support us in our efforts to gain improvements.

Although we did not possess the right to strike, we had binding arbitration to resolve disputes not settled by negotiations. Many events in the history of the BCTF had given rise to the conditions that determined my economic welfare as a teacher in 1971. I want to discuss two of those events here: the teacher strike in New Westminster in 1921 and the Langley dispute of 1939–40.

After the 1919 teacher strike in Victoria, the provincial government introduced arbitration for resolving teacher-board salary disputes. The amendment to the Public School Act read: “The Board of School Trustees of any school district may enter into an agreement with one or more teachers by arbitration in such manner as may be determined by agreement.” But there was no requirement to recognize teacher locals as bargaining agents for teachers. Boards could refuse to enter into arbitration and if they did enter into arbitration, they were not bound by the results of the arbitration. But it was a start.

By 1921, teacher salaries in New Westminster had fallen behind salaries in other districts in the Lower Mainland. After unsuccessful attempts by the New Westminster Teachers’ Association to engage the board in negotiations, the NWTA, led by their president, George Ford, sent an ultimatum to the board: “Unless the School Board consents to meet the executive and arrange a salary schedule mutually satisfactory to both parties, the teachers will not be in school on Monday (February 14, 1921).” Only two of 86 teachers showed up for work on Monday after the board refused to meet with the NWTA executive.

After a week-long strike and public pressure on the board from parents and the community, the school board agreed to meet with teacher representatives. The settlement reached included recognition of the teachers’ association and an attempt to negotiate teacher salaries, with arbitration as a resolution if negotiations failed.

Sadly, the negotiations did fail, but the arbitration board decision did favour the teacher position on salaries. Not until new trustee elections almost a year later were the arbitrated salaries finally honoured.

The New Westminster strike was a key event in teacher history because it led to recognition of a teacher-organized bargaining unit. During the strike, support for the NWTA poured in from teachers all across B.C. and the rest of Canada. It was the genesis of the BCTF reserve fund, which, for over half a century, financed initiatives to improve bargaining. In 1987–88, the reserve fund became the Collective Bargaining Defense Fund.

Almost twenty years after the New Westminster strike, another key development in the acheivement of bargaining rights for teachers occurred in Langley. The government had finally enshrined compulsory arbitration in legislation, in 1937. That legislation did not sit well with some school boards. They continued to fight their loss of arbitrary power over, and control of, teachers. Connie Jervis was the president of the Langley Teachers’ Association for the 1939–40 school year, and the teachers presented their case to the school board for a salary increase. The board would not agree to an increase; instead it imposed its own schedule of individual teacher salaries. The teachers asked to have the matter submitted to arbitration, but the board refused to do so voluntarily. When the teachers invoked the compulsory aspect of arbitration that had become law two years earlier, the board continued to refuse to co-operate. The board would not appoint a member to the arbitration board, so government did so for the board. The board refused to make a presentation to the arbitration board. The arbitration board ruled in favour of the teachers.

The school board refused to pay the teachers the arbitrated award. So the teachers took the board to court and had the court order the school board to pay the arbitrated award.

The school board again refused to pay the arbitrated award and proceeded to fire all the Langley teachers on the arbitration list. The fired teachers appealed to a Board of Reference under the Public Schools Act, and the firings were promptly rescinded. But still the school board persisted. When teachers’ assignments were posted in the local newspaper, The Langley Advance, five of the teachers active in the arbitration fight had been demoted by the school board. But the teachers persisted, and the five demoted teachers, on opening day in September of 1940, showed up in the school and classroom assignment they had left in June. The chairperson of the school board actually went from school to school ordering the teachers to their new assignments. Then the provincial government finally acted and fired the Langley School Board and replaced it with a single trustee administrator. The teachers were all returned to their June assignments and paid the arbitrated award. The Langley case demonstrated the significant acts of courage that were undertaken by a handful of teachers in a community where the local press and sentiment were largely against them.

The stories from New Westminster and Langley stand out as examples of teachers acting together with the full and ongoing support of the B.C. Teachers¹ Federation to expand the bargaining rights of teachers. Even when the rights were won, they still had to be protected. In both situations, school boards refused to acknowledge their loss of arbitrary power and control over the work lives of teachers. More recently, some trustees have refused to recognize the right of teachers to negotiate their working conditions by refusing to ratify the provincial agreement with new primary-class-size limits and some minimum levels for non-enrolling teachers.

Ken Novakowski is director of the BCTF¹s Organization Support Division.

Focus groups on collective bargaining

The BCTF will be holding eight focus groups in different regions of the province. Each session will involve 12 randomly selected members for two days, discussing collective bargaining topics‹economic issues, employment and job security, professional issues, and teacher workload.

The BCTF has commissioned MacIntyre and Mustel Research to conduct the focus groups on our behalf. They will prepare a final report based on the eight sessions and deliver it to the BCTF Executive Committee by the end of February 2000. The information gathered through the focus groups will be used in planning and organizing for the next round of collective bargaining.

The objective-setting process for the next round will begin with meetings and discussions in all locals in the fall of 2000. A delegated, decision-making bargaining conference will take place early in 2001.

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