Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Reflections on the BC Teacher Strike

Teachers are reflective practitioners. And just as we reflect on a lesson to judge what worked and what did not, we ought also to reflect on our struggle to improve the public education system. The point is not to lay blame. It is to figure out how to do it better next time.

A starting point for reflection is to judge the outcome relative to our goals. From this point of view, there is much to be done. As we return to class this week, there are still no class size limits for Grades 4 - 12. There are still no rules whatsoever on the composition of a class. Our salaries will increase pretty much in accordance with the original government proposal. Elementary teachers will have ten more minutes of preparation time. This is a far cry from the proposals tabled over a year ago, and still far from the "bottom line" of the framework proposal made at the end of June.

Teachers will still act as the shock absorbers for a system under stress. We ourselves will be the ones on medical leave from the ten percent of classes that are truly not adequate learning environments. We will continue to see teachers leave the profession. We will continue to fill in the gaps with our own resources - be that money or time. And at the same time our salaries will continue to fall relative to inflation.

We will watch as the BCTF goes back to court over the imposition of Bills 28 and 22. While this is absolutely necessary, we will no longer have the opportunity of immediate reinstatement of our class size language. Even if the courts uphold Justice Griffin's decision and reject the government's appeal, we will be teaching in over crowded classrooms until something new is negotiated, and we know what that process is likely to look like.

So what have we learned for next time?

Some commentators have suggested this deal was better than a legislated end to the dispute. In the context of our court case, I'm not so sure. A legislated contract likely would have been two years, with the same wages, and with no re-opener on the court case. The possibility would be there of immediate reinstatement of our class size language with a final court decision. A two year agreement would have us bargaining again before an election, not after one. These are the reasons the government wanted this deal and didn't want to legislate.

Others have said we had no other choice - public support would disappear. I'm not so sure about that either. The public was with us because we were fighting for classroom conditions. If we were clear that this deal made few improvements, I believe many in the public would have stayed the course. Regardless, we have a lot of work to do to build stronger alliances in our communities. Public support was good, but not overwhelming. Our relationships need to deepen and broaden. We can't only ask parents to help us when we need it. We have to be there on parent issues such as seismic upgrading, school closures, child poverty, day care and affordable housing. And I don't mean just taking the right position. We have to be there on the streets, like parents were for us.

It should have been an option to return to work but reject the deal. Unfortunately, this option was not available to teachers. There is some irony that the timing of the vote came in part due to a motion from a BCTF AGM requiring a vote to end a job action. This motion was to prevent a "sell out" from leadership at the end of a strike by stopping job action without membership consent. But it was never meant to rush a ratification vote. Teachers should have had two separate choices - do we return to work? Do we accept this contract?

Teachers had about six hours to look at the contract language. They received conflicting information about the re-opener clause (which had been settled in bargaining at least three days earlier), and about the impact of the Education Fund. The BCTF claimed 850 new teachers would be hired, but failed to mention the layoffs this spring (such as 135 in Surrey alone), or that most of those hires had already happened with the Learning Improvement Fund. This year's new money for teachers is only the amount that had been spent on CUPE staff - probably about 15-30% of the fund. Teachers need adequate time to debate and consider an agreement and they have the right to see the actual language of the contract. These are basic democratic rights that any membership should insist from their union. We need to rethink how we ratify contracts.

The government strategy of starving us out was effective. If we choose to take strike action next time, we need to think a lot more carefully about how long we can stay out. Striking at the beginning of the school year was very effective at creating pressure - especially due to the impact on International programs. Striking in June was not effective, and only added extra financial pressure on teachers. We need a properly funded strike fund. And teachers need to learn a lesson from the private sector that you should have several months savings to help you weather a longer strike. If government perceives this bargaining round as a win, which I believe they do, they will use these strategies again next time - lock outs and long strikes.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

BC Teacher strike - Lessons learned

On the evening of the vote results, I found myself, with great difficulty, repeating the tried and true advice: "Don't mourn, organize." Because it is correct. There is much to do. And there are always setbacks and disappointments on the way to a better world.

That said, it is also worth some analysis on the strike to guide the future. Here are my thoughts.

Longest teacher strike in BC history

Despite the outcome, perhaps the most incredible thing about this strike was the resolve of teachers. Although long strikes are more common in the private sector, for a public sector union this was a very long strike indeed. Three days of rotating strikes, followed by two weeks in June, followed by almost three weeks in September. Five weeks in total. This is more than double the length of the 2005 strike of two weeks. The length of the strike showed the depth of the resolve amongst teachers.

Teachers understood clearly the severity of the issues at hand and the need for extended pressure in the context of a government that campaigned on and implements neo-liberal reforms. Teachers should be rightly proud of taking a stand and making a personal sacrifice to do so. And union leaders should take careful note that workers in British Columbia are willing to take action to stop concession bargaining and instead fight to win improvement. I hope we are at a historic breaking point from the thirty year concessionary bargaining of the North American labour movement.

The length of the strike is also important for its knock on effect. Periods of history where labour makes gains are marked by frequent strikes and by more strike days. Not every one of these strikes results in victory. But the cumulative impact changes the balance of power. Employers get nervous if they believe the risk is high. And this in turn impacts the outcome of bargaining.

The outcome

I do not believe this strike was a victory.

On the major issue, return of class size and composition limits, we failed. The Education Fund, as I've already noted, is a shell game. The money in will in short order be offset by increased costs to School Boards and stagnating per pupil funding. The "reopener" clause for government in the event of a court victory on our class size case will nullify potential gains from that win. The grievance settlement we paid for ourselves with the strike savings, relieving government from a potential liability and bargaining lever.

On wages, the government did shift slightly. In spring they removed the requirement for sick day accumulation limits to pay for wages. They also shifted the timing to put more increases front loaded. But overall, the wages remain below inflation and so this is a concessionary contract in that respect. Teachers' buying power will go down over the life of the contract.

The small increases to elementary preparation time are a genuine win, and this was a much better way to bargain the funds from the grievance settlement. These increases set a new standard in contract for elementary preparation time and this time is sorely needed. This is the only real improvement in working conditions in this contract.

Teacher teaching on call (TTOC) per day rates increased for most TTOCs, but at the expense of those at the high end of the salary scale. This is probably overall a positive step, as there is a historic imbalance in the remuneration of teachers at the beginning and end of their careers. But it does come at the cost of experienced TTOCs who will pay for the change.

Solidarity?

Many teachers reluctantly voted yes because they felt a longer strike could significantly impact parent solidarity and the sympathy of the public. This may or may not be the case. Many vocal supporters were clear to indicate that support would continue regardless of the vote and that they were behind teachers in fighting for better classroom conditions. It is also the case that every public sector strike faces a conundrum - instead of monetary pressure on the employer, a strike creates public inconvenience. The widespread, organized support of parents and the continued support in polling was one of the great victories of this strike. This, more than anything else, pressured the government. The test now will be to ensure that the teacher/parent bonds that have been forged deepen and strengthen. Ultimately this will be required to win back smaller classes.

Solidarity from organized labour is a more difficult assessment. It is first important to distinguish between the actions of the leadership of unions and the actions of individual members. Many individual union members showed great commitment. They came to our picket lines, they wrote letters, they rallied. Like parents, many actively organized in support.

The labour leadership, five weeks into the strike, offered interest free loans to teachers and the BCTF. A few individual unions gave direct donations (notably Ontario teachers who donated $1,000,000). But the majority of the "support" came in the form of interest free loans.

To me this is one of the tragic failures in this dispute, and a warning sign for workers in BC. While loans and donations are appreciated, what we need is collective pressure. BC now has a long and sad history of the union movement failing to step in with solidarity strikes when they are most needed. Two glaring examples stand out - long strikes by small private sector unions, such as the projectionists and now the IKEA workers, and public sector strikes. The failure of the BC Federation of Labour to mobilize with us is a continuation of the trend that sees joint labour action moribund. Nowhere was this more clear than during the "net zero" mandate, where there was so much reason for a joint coordinated response to a broad attack on public sector wages. Labour can and must work to support one another if we are to muster the strength needed to stop concession bargaining and regain what we have lost.