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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 18, Number 5, March 2006

Health & Safety: Is affiliation worth it?

by Mark Keelan

The BCTF’s three-year trial period as an affiliate of the BC Federation of Labour is coming to a close. Members will soon be asked to vote on whether or not to stay in the BC Fed and to join the Canadian Labour Congress.

It costs money to be part of the BC Fed and the CLC. A question often asked by members is, "What do we get in return for the amount of money we spend on affiliation?" In other words, is being affiliated with the house of labour worth it?

Support provided to teachers by organized labour during the fall of 2005 is analogous to a Mastercard commercial. One picket sign—$2. Rent for a portable sound system for a rally—$850. Support from union sisters and brothers, organized by the BC Fed through local labour councils in every community across the province—priceless.

At this point readers may be glancing at the heading at the top of this column. It reads, "Health and Safety." Some may wonder what affiliation with the BC Fed and the CLC has to do with health and safety. Is there a connection?

The history of the labour movement in Canada, as well as in every other country, is inextricably linked to the fight for occupational health and safety protections. As long ago as 1849, workers in Vancouver Island coal mines formed and reformed unions with the principal goal of improving mine safety. In 1962 the provincial labour minister appointed a Royal Commission to look into the (then) Workmen’s Compensation Board stating that "virtually every trade union in the province has asked for the probe." In the 1990s, representatives of organized labour were instrumental in the development of occupational health and safety regulations designed to protect workers from risks associated with chemicals and biological substances. At the same time, labour representatives worked with employers and the WCB to put ergonomics provisions into regulation. BC continues to be one of very few jurisdictions in North America to have ergonomics regulations.

The BCTF has two seats on the BC Federation of Labour’s Occupational Health and Safety Committee. The committee meets monthly to discuss health and safety issues that are important to workers, to organize lobbying of the WCB and government around health and safety issues, and to develop plans to assist affiliates in their efforts to protect their members from occupational hazards. If the BCTF were not at this table, labour would not hear about teachers’ concerns and teachers’ issues would be far less likely to be acknowledged by the WCB and government.

The Education Project Steering Committee is a sub-committee of the BCFed’s Occupational Health and Safety Committee. The BCTF also has two seats on this committee. All of the BCFed’s health and safety training is planned and overseen by this group. Our connection with the BCFed training has helped to strengthen the BCTF health and safety training program. In addition, the steering committee is responsible for the phenomenally successful Young Workers’ Project, now named Alive After Five, a program where young workers travel to high schools across the province to teach students about their basic health and safety rights. Both teachers and students benefit from the BCTF involvement with the BC Fed Education Project.

Assisting members with their WCB claims and advocating for members in claims appeals can be extremely complicated. The BCTF has staff dedicated to this work. The Workers’ Compensation Advocacy Group (WCAG) is a group of WCB advocates who work on behalf of members of many unions across the province. Because BCTF staff is part of WCAG, BCTF members receive the benefit of the vast experience of this group of union advocates.

The Canadian Labour Congress has a number of initiatives designed to improve health and safety in Canadian workplaces. The CLC’s "Prevent Cancer Campaign" is attempting to reverse a distressing trend. In the 1930s, 1 in 10 Canadians contracted cancer. In the 1970s it was 1 in 5. Today, 1 in 3 Canadians will contract cancer. Other CLC health and safety projects include a "Healthy Food Campaign" and the promotion of the right of workers to know about pesticides in their workplaces. Many teachers have expertise in these areas. Labour needs to have access to that expertise just as teachers and their students need to be the beneficiaries of the campaigns.

Is it worth it for the BCTF to be affiliated with labour? A brief look at labour history shows that workers have gained important workplace protections because they joined together. As workers around the world brace themselves against globalization, which brings efforts by employers to reduce or eliminate workers’ rights, including hard-won health and safety rights, the lessons of the past must not be forgotten. Teachers will be safer by staying inside the house of labour.

Mark Keelan is the BCTF’s health and safety officer for prevention.

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