By Ken Novakowski, Labour Heritage Centre board member and retired teacher, and Sarah Wethered, New Westminster Teachers’ Association President
One hundred years ago on February 14, 1921, 84 New Westminster teachers, most of whom were women, went on strike. The seven primary and two secondary schools were closed, affecting 3,000 students. This was remarkable because BC teachers did not obtain the legal right to strike until 1988, and it was quite uncommon to see women taking strike action during the early part of the last century.
New Westminster teachers had significant reasons to go on strike when they did. They were paid based on a salary schedule established unilaterally by the school board. Years of experience and education were not considered in determining what each teacher was paid: it was an unfair and inequitable system. The New Westminster Teachers’ Association (NWTA) proposed a new salary grid with significant increases so New Westminster teacher salaries would be more in line with those in surrounding school districts. The school board ignored the teachers’ submission, so teachers made a very reasonable request that the matter be referred to arbitration. The board refused to agree to arbitration and the strike was on.
Despite board threats to fire teachers who continued to strike, teachers remained out and united. Teachers also had strong community support that eventually resulted in the board agreeing to arbitration. The strike lasted five school days, and the subsequent arbitration award favoured the teachers’ proposal.
The board had not budgeted for a salary increase, so a supplemental estimate had to be approved by city council. Teachers carried on teaching until the end of the year when it became clear that the board did not intend to include any provision for back pay. In response, the teachers’ association delivered the signed resignations of all the teachers in the district to take effect if the board failed to provide the arbitration award.
At the civic election in January 1922, the recalcitrant members of the board were swept out of office. The new school board quickly agreed with the teachers’ association and finally paid their arbitrated salaries.
The New Westminster teacher strike was an important event in BCTF history. New Westminster teachers demonstrated that unity and strength helped obtain their collective goals. They achieved a fairer form of salary allocation, and their salaries were more in keeping with those in surrounding districts. The New Westminster Teachers’ Association was now recognized by their employer as the official bargaining agent for teachers in the district. Further, two NWTA teachers, Ernest Lock and George Ford, went on to become BCTF presidents and winners of the BCTF’s G.A. Ferguson Memorial Award, which recognizes outstanding contributions to public education.
The New Westminster teacher strike took place only four years after the BC Teachers’ Federation was founded; the NWTA was one of seven teacher organizations that came together to create the provincial body. But the strike exposed a major weakness of the BCTF as it was then structured. The BCTF did not have a membership structure independent of local teachers’ associations and proved ineffective in being able to provide the New Westminster local any substantive support. This experience would eventually result in changes to the BCTF that would allow it to become the effective body it is today in assisting locals.
Supportive messages came from teacher organizations across Canada, and teacher associations in BC sent funds to the New Westminster local to help them in their struggle. As it turned out, these funds were not needed and the local turned them over to the BCTF, which used them to establish the BCTF Reserve Fund. This fund became an important emergency fund for the BCTF over the next 65 years when it then morphed into the Collective Bargaining Defence Fund. One of the main uses of the fund was to provide strike pay to teachers.
In 2017, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the BCTF, a plaque was installed by the BC Labour Heritage Centre across from New Westminster City Hall, on 6th Street and Royal Avenue. This is the approximate location where the 1921 school board offices stood. This plaque commemorates the 1921 New Westminster teacher strike and acknowledges its important role in the ongoing struggle for fairness and full bargaining rights. It is one of five local events recognized around the province as contributing to the eventual gaining of full bargaining rights in 1987–88.