British Columbia Teachers’ Strike


I n British Columbia 42,000 teachers walked out of the classroom and on to the picket line in October, demanding improved working and learning conditions from the government, as well as salary increases. The Canadian provincial government refused to negotiate with the teachers and passed legislation imposing a new two-year contract with no improvements of conditions or wages. Teachers defied the back to work legislation. In response, the BC Supreme Court froze the assets of the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) and levied a $500 million fine against the union, the largest civil contempt penalty in provincial history. 

Background 

P oor relations between the governing BC Liberal Party and the BCTF can be traced back to August 2001, when the Liberals declared education an "essential service." As a result, teachers lost their rights to take any action that significantly disrupted education. British Columbia is the only province in Canada in which education has been so designated. 

The contract that time decreed a 2.5 percent per year salary increase over 3 years. However, that increase was not funded by the government, nor were other increases in costs fully funded. As a result over 2,500 teaching positions, nearly 8 percent of the teaching force, were eliminated by school boards that lacked funding. 

 

The BC Teachers’ Federation began limited job actions in November 2001 and two months later the Liberal government imposed a contract on teachers that stripped away contract provisions on class size, composition, and the number of specialty teachers. Teachers responded with a one-day walkout, closing schools province-wide. 

At the same time, unions representing teachers, nurses, college educators, health science professionals, and government workers all filed formal complaints with the International Labor Organization (ILO) challenging six laws pertaining to the right to strike and collective bargaining in the health and education sectors as a result of essential service designations. 

After extensive investigation, the International Labor Organization concluded in March 2003 that six laws enacted by the BC Liberal government violated international conventions to which Canada is a signatory. The ILO ruling affirmed the right of public service workers to bargain collectively and, if necessary, to go on strike. It also confirmed that the BC Liberals’ essential services laws contravened international law. 

The BC Liberal government ignored the ILO’s judgment. When the government imposed another contract on teachers through passage of Bill 12 in October, it contravened a directive by the ILO "to avoid in future having recourse to such legislated settlement." 

When BC government lawyers provided arguments to the ILO in 2002 about why it had legislated contracts, it invoked the logic of neoliberalism. At the time, the BC Liberal government told the ILO, "Any restrictions on collective bargaining or on the right to strike were exceptional measures, enacted in view of the difficult economic and fiscal situation." None of these conditions used in 2002 exist today, yet the government has continued to violate international law, imposing contracts and refusing to negotiate working conditions with teachers. 

Teachers and school boards began province-wide bargaining in 1993 and since then teachers have been subjected to government imposed contracts four times. In June 2004 the contract previously imposed on BC teachers expired and bargaining began between the BCTF and the British Columbia Public School Employers Association (BCPSEA), which is the bargaining agent for the province’s 60 public school boards. The BCPSEA takes its direction from the government and, during negotiations, the BCPSEA could not discuss improving learning conditions or any salary increases. 

Teachers Take A Stand 

T he two major issues for the teachers are improved salaries and improved working and learning conditions. On the salary front, teachers have seen their earnings lag behind inflation by about 4 percent over the last 7 years. BC teachers also justified their demands for salary increases (which they pegged at 3 percent per year for 3 years) by arguing that teachers in Alberta and Ontario, with the same qualifications and experience, make $10,000 or more annually for the same work. Moreover, BC school administrators are the highest paid in Canada, according to a cross-Canada survey carried out by the Canadian Teachers’ Federation. Not only do BC administrators make more money than administrators in other provinces, but the gap between teacher and administrator salaries in BC is the highest in the country as well. 

Teaching and learning conditions in BC schools are the other main area of contention. In the past four years the provincial government placed budget restrictions on the schools and, as a result, school boards were forced to lay off thousands of teachers. While the government infused an additional $150 million into public education this year, the BC Liberal Party’s budget documents for 2005 forecast a two-year school funding freeze. This infusion of money will help improve conditions, but does not come close to restoring the learning conditions that existed prior to cuts to education funding, and this funding has no money set aside for salary increases. 

Between 2001 and 2004, the provincial schools lost 2,609 teaching positions. About 700 of those can be attributed to declining enrollment, but 1,900 positions reduced services to students through larger classes and fewer support teachers. 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 than in 2001. They are projecting hiring another 507 this year. 

The teaching and learning conditions, particularly the importance of class size and class composition, have been the primary emphasis of the BCTF’s campaign. Jill Barclay, an elementary teacher on Vancouver’s east side, said of the cuts to education, "I’ve been sitting in staff meetings where we’ve been told that there is not enough paper to last the entire year. So if you don’t stop using so much paper you’re going to have to start buying your own. So I think, excuse me, are nurses asked to go out and buy their own needles?" 

 

At nearby Sir Richard McBride Elementary teachers tell similar tales of the damage produced by years of cuts to public education. Christy Wong says that McBride teachers have been spending thousands of dollars of their own money to buy supplies for their classrooms. 

Heidi Gonzalez, an elementary teacher in Delta, says she has seen dramatic changes in her seven years of teaching, but that class size is not as big an issue for her as class composition. Support for teachers has diminished in recent years at a time when class composition has created more demanding conditions for teachers, especially as there has been an increasing number of special needs students without an increase in instructional support.  

Gonzalez summed the reasons for striking by saying, "I used to believe that the more experienced teachers were generally resistant to change and longed for the ‘good old days.’ However, more and more I’ve realized that those ‘good old days’ collectively represented a time when teaching conditions were much more conducive to effective learning…. This strike is for our students. It is for improvement in learning conditions in the classroom. It is for future teachers in the profession who have no idea that the ‘good old days’ actually existed." 

An Illegal Strike 

A fter working for a full year without a contract, on September 23, more than 88 percent of teachers voted to strike to achieve improvements in this round of negotiations. If there was no major progress in bargaining, BCTF president Sims promised a series of escalating job actions starting with no out-of-class student supervision; no meetings with management; no attendance reports; no communication with principals. This would be followed by rotating strikes two weeks later and a province-wide walkout two weeks after that. 

In response, the BC government passed legislation (Bill 12), which imposed a two-year contract on the teachers that included no wage increases, no improvements for teaching and learning conditions, and which effectively negated the teachers’ right to strike or take other job actions. 

Angry teachers then voted 90.5 percent in favor of walking out of their classrooms to protest the legislation and the attack on their rights to collective bargaining. After Bill 12 passed, the Labor Relations Board told teachers to resume their duties and work schedules and ordered them to refrain from picketing at or near schools. It also told the union to refrain from declaring or authorizing a strike. 

Saying they would not be bullied, on October 7 teachers defied the government, the Labor Relations Board, and the courts and walked out of classrooms in what was subsequently declared an illegal strike. Sims and the BCTF continued to insist that they were ready and willing to negotiate, but BC Premier Gordon Campbell and Labor Minister Mike de Jong refused to negotiate with the teachers while they defied Bill 12. 

On October 9, Justice Brenda Brown of the BC Supreme Court found the teachers’ union in contempt of court. Brown said her judgment was not based on whether the legislation teachers were protesting was fair or whether the teachers actions were justifiable. "It is the rule of law, in this case obedience to court orders, which permits us to enjoy rights and liberties in a civilized and democratic society," the judge said. 

Public Support for Teachers 

O ver the course of the two-week strike the labor movement and the public showed strong backing for the teachers. At the end of the second day of picketing, over 5,000 protesters gathered at BC Liberal Party offices in downtown Vancouver to protest Bill 12. Amid calls for a general strike, labor leaders from BC and across Canada delivered messages of solidarity with the teachers. The rally, sponsored by the British Columbia Labor Federation, included a strong showing of support from other sectors including CUPE (Canadian Union of Public Employees), Longshoremen, IBEW, Hospital Employee’s Union, BC Government and Services Employees’ Union, Telecommunications Workers Union (and others), as well many parents and students. 

The Vancouver rally was the first of a series of coordinated protests by BC labor organizations, the largest of which shut down Victoria on October 17. An estimated 20,000 teachers and other union members, along with parents and students, gathered in front of the parliament buildings demanding that the government repeal Bill 12 and negotiate with the teachers. 

Canadian Teachers’ Federation President Winston Carter said they wouldn’t stand idly by and allow a member organization to be attacked by what he called a wrong-headed government. "We are afraid, we are scared as a teachers federation that this is just a thin wedge and that other unions and all the public sector groups throughout Canada are going to be in the same boat the next time round if the government of this province gets away with this draconian measure that they’re employing at this point in time," Carter said.

Thousands of union members in Greater Victoria and all CUPE members on Vancouver Island went off the job to protest the legislation imposed by the government on teachers. The Victoria protest was followed by mass solidarity walkouts across the province and by CUPE members in Greater Vancouver and the Fraser Valley. The protests captured the attention of the BC business community. The president of the BC Business Council, Jerry Lampert, told the media that the BC Federation of Labor was leading the province down the "quick road to anarchy."  Kevin Evans of the Coalition of BC Businesses told the media he was concerned about this strike and the precedent being set as other unions approach deadlines in their own collective agreements. 

In the days just before the strike, polls taken for the BCTF showed 56 percent of British Columbians supported the teachers’ position, compared with about 19 percent who backed the government. That support remained steady and even increased as the strike moved into its second week. An Ipsos Reid poll found that 61 percent of the public backed the teachers’ province-wide illegal strike. 

W hile public support grew and the teachers and their allies protested across the province, the government and courts turned up the heat. Four days after Justice Brown found the teachers in contempt of court, she ordered the teachers’ union funds to be placed in a trusteeship as punishment for their continued strike. The decision prevented union members from receiving $50 a day in strike pay and restricted the union’s use of funds to continue its campaign of civil disobedience. 

The day of the protest in Victoria, the attorney general appointed Vancouver lawyer Len Doust as an independent special prosecutor to determine whether criminal contempt charges were warranted. Doust told Justice Brown, "It has become apparent that some of the [BCTF’s conduct] displayed to date comes perilously close to criminal contempt of court," but that he would proceed cautiously and wait for direction from the court. 

At a news conference Campbell said there is "no excuse to break the law and show such flagrant contempt for the courts of British Columbia." Campbell said he was willing to meet with teachers, but wouldn’t renegotiate the collective agreement. He said the union must order teachers back to their classrooms to avoid criminal charges. 

 

As the job actions spread across the province and the BC Federation of Labor promised more shut downs, including Vancouver and the Lower Mainland, mediator Vince Ready stepped into the fray. Ready, who had been appointed to recommend a new system of bargaining for future contracts before the strike, began meeting with government and union officials on Tuesday, October 18. Ready is a legendary figure in BC, widely respected for his skills in mediating tough labor disputes and his involvement in the standoff was widely perceived as the equivalent of the government blinking. 

Ready almost immediately declared an impasse, declaring that the parties were "just too far apart to come to a facilitated agreement or any kind of negotiated agreement." Ready made his announcement after the BCTF publicly released their own proposals to end the dispute. Ready then issued his own non-binding recommendations, which included $100 million worth of provisions to improve salaries, benefits, and teaching and learning conditions. These included: 

  • The government spends $40 million to harmonize teachers’ salaries across districts; this represents a 2 percent increase for teachers province-wide; teachers were seeking a 15 percent pay raise 
  • The government makes a one-time payment of $40 million to the BCTF’s long-term disability trust (teachers were interested in having government take over payment of the premiums) 
  • The government provides $5.2 million to raise teacher-on-call pay to $190 per day (current average is $165) 
  • The government puts an extra $20 million toward improving class sizes and special-needs students supports now and considers doing so on an ongoing basis and consults with BCTF about changing the class-size limits in the School Act 
  • The government increases the number of teacher representatives at the Learning Roundtable, where stakeholders in public education would meet and discuss problems faced by public schools 

The BC Liberal government immediately and "unconditionally" accepted the Ready recommendations. The next day, Friday, October 21, the BCTF was hit with a huge $500 million fine for contempt of court for refusing to end its illegal strike. Brown noted the fine would have been "significantly larger," but said she took into consideration the fact the province and teachers were close to reaching a deal to end the strike. She also warned the BCTF that additional penalties could be imposed depending on future developments in the teachers’ contract dispute. 

The same day, Jim Sinclair, president of the Federation of Labor called off the federation’s involvement in rallies and job actions planned for Vancouver and Fraser Valley and demanded that the Ready recommendations be put to a vote by the BCTF membership. Many teachers were furious over Sinclair’s actions. CUPE BC did, however, follow through on its commitment to protest in solidarity with the teachers and over 10,000 CUPE members put their "tools down" for the day and attended rallies. 

After a day of analysis, and in a surprise move, the BCTF leadership reluctantly endorsed the recommendations. "We are recommending that you accept the Ready report," Sims told teachers at Burnaby Central Secondary School on Saturday, October 22. "I don’t want you to vote the way Jinny Sims wants you to vote, I want you to vote your conscience," she said. 

There were mixed feelings among the rank and file about accepting the Ready report, but teachers voted 77 percent in favor of ending the two-week wildcat strike. "Teachers have voted by a large majority to end our campaign of civil disobedience and to return to work tomorrow," Sims said. 

While many teachers were anxious to return to work, key goals identified by the BCTF were not achieved, including: full, free collective bargaining for teachers; return of contract language on working and learning conditions stripped from previous contacts; and a fair salary increase. 

The $100 million worth of provisions in the Ready report amount to less than what was saved by the government on teacher salaries during the two-week strike. Some BCTF members were against returning to classrooms because the government did not provide a written commitment regarding class size and composition. A lack of trust remained as teachers returned to work and began participating in Learning Roundtable discussions. Contract talks are set to begin next spring 

Sims and three other BCTF representatives attended the first meeting of the Learning Roundtable in Victoria on October 24. Sims said, "British Columbians support teachers’ speaking out for students, they care deeply about the learning conditions in their children’s classrooms, and they want the government to reinvest in a strong and stable public school system."


E. Wayne Ross is co-editor of Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labor (www.workplace-gsc.com) and lives in Vancouver, BC.