British Columbia’s classrooms were barren mid-June as teachers escalated a six-month labour feud with their heftiest weapon yet: a three-day strike. The teachers, who are deemed an essential service, were granted permission for the walkout by the Labour Relations Board to back contract demands for improved wages and working conditions. The move comes as the provincial government continues to debate back-to-work legislation that, when passed within the next week or so, will force the teachers back to full duties. The Canadian Press spoke to a teacher, student and parent to capture the pulse of the situation just before the strike began.
If a headhunter were to show up at Todd Ablett’s classroom and offer him a teaching job in Calgary, he would seriously consider taking the offer. The 50-year-old Vancouver high school teacher said he’d be willing to uproot his young family and sell his home if it meant he’d be getting a contract he perceives as fair. The $15,000 to $20,000 pay bump just one province east would be a start. Gladstone Secondary in Vancouver, meanwhile, would be left with a hole once filled by the Prime Minister’s Teaching Excellence Award winner, whose students have claimed their own victories at several international robotics championships. When the strike started, Ablett walked the “protest line,” hoisting a sign and handing out leaflets but not blocking access to any school buildings.
“I’m more than willing to even be illegal in this in the end,” he said, explaining he feels that his basic democratic rights are being “squashed” by the province. “How can teachers be an essential service and have a way where the employer doesn’t just decide what we’re being paid?”
Ablett uses a blog and Twitter to connect with his students, and has taken extra courses to stay at the leading edge of his curriculum. He said he was once told by Canadian astronaut Robert Thirsk the skills he’s teaching are as advanced as what Thirsk learned during his mechanical engineering degree. Ablett scoffs at the government’s position that Bill 22, the Education Improvement Act, will modernize the system.
“What we should actually call it is the Education Control Act,” he said. “The government will never react quick enough to what we need. You can set the standards, and let me teach to it.” Over 15 years in B.C. schools, Ablett said he’s watched class sizes balloon while he believes budgets have been halved. (The provincial government maintains education funding has steadily increased, though teachers say not enough to keep up with expanded demands.) Ablett said it feels like teachers are the only ones standing up for public education, yet it’s the cornerstone of a strong civilization. “It’s more important than health care,” he said. “If you lose a generation to poor education, your civilization starts to falter. You can ask the First Nations people about residential schools, you can ask the Mayans, the Romans.”
If he could sit down with Education Minister George Abbott, the teacher said he’d be willing to strike a deal: roll over the current contract for two years and then hammer out a true solution. “Let’s work out the system so this doesn’t have to be like this every year,” Ablett said. “It’s only insanity if you keep doing the same thing and get the same results.”
Over the six months since teachers began limited strike action, Grade 10 student Rachel Watson has watched her friends stop handing in homework and their grades have begun to slip. She’s also heard the quiver in her teachers’ voices when they’ve said No to giving students an extra hand. “We can see it’s hurting them to not help us,” said Watson. The 15-year-old King George Secondary student left school early on Friday as several hundred pupils staged their own walkout, heading to downtown Vancouver to rally in support of quality education. Watson made a neon-pink sign that read “Knowledge is power.”
“There are a lot of students here … who don’t know what we’re here for. And there are a lot of people in the government who don’t know how this is affecting us,” she said. “We think that spreading knowledge will give us the power to make a change.”
Watson plans to stay home and study for an upcoming science test on Monday, while her friend Cera Cooper said she may join teachers protesting outside their school. The girls shared a sense of confusion about exactly why the labour strife had been going on for so long. Teachers have not been allowed to discuss the issues with their classes, Watson said.
“How are we supposed to learn about the world if we can’t get people’s opinions on what’s going on around us?” she said. While the teens are unimpressed they’ve been using hand-me-down textbooks from the early 1990s, they concede the education system could get worse. But Watson said that’s not the right perspective to take. “I think there’s a lot of things we could improve, and there’s a lot of things we’ve already improved,” she said. “Without changing stuff, how can we move forward?”
From six-year-old Sophie’s eyes, the three-day walkout looks like a sweet, unexpected holiday. Her father, Philip Davis, is viewing the time she’ll be home instead of in school as short-term pain for long-term gain.
Explaining the situation to the Grade 1 student in simple terms, Davis explains “the teachers are unhappy because they care about your education.”
“So you mean I get to play outside for a few more days?” was her response. But Davis said he considers the situation far more significant than he lets on to his daughter. The Vancouver-based architectural consultant admits he’s more flexible than other parents, able to reschedule meetings during the job action since he works most days from home.
“(Teachers) should stick to their guns, they should push to get the things they want,” he said. “If you listen to what they’re saying, they’re not really just talking about themselves. They’re talking about the quality of that education and the class sizes, which impacts directly the quality of that education.” Though his only child has only just begun school, he feels she doesn’t have the same math, spelling and grammar comprehension he had by the same age. With both parents working as the norm, he feels many families keep the schools at arm’s length, and that makes it easy for government to neglect funding worries.
“I do have some concerns,” he said. “Frankly, I’ve had to raise those with teachers rather than have them raise it with me. I don’t think teachers simply have the time to turn around to a parent.”
Forcing teachers to negotiate a contract that does not include cost increases for hiked wages or benefits — a mandate thousands of other public servants have already adhered to — is wrongheaded, he said.
“You take something vastly significant away from who we are by squeezing education and putting it in the same basket,” he said. “By way of squeezing the teachers themselves, we don’t attract the sorts of people that we should be.”
What do BC teachers want?
• More one-on-one support for students who need it most and guaranteed levels of specialist teachers
• Smaller classes, so all students can get the individual attention they deserve
• Time to prepare lessons that engage diverse learning styles
• A reasonable wage increase that respects teachers’ skills and responsibilities
Where the sides stand in the B.C. teachers dispute
Here’s a look at the most recent proposals from each side:
B.C. Teachers’ Federation: Five years (July 1, 2013 – June 30, 2018).
B.C. Public School Employers’ Association: Six years (July 1, 2013 – June 30, 2019) with the option of increasing to seven years to secure an additional wage increase.
BCTF: 3.5 per cent in the first year, followed by 1.5 per cent a year for the following three years, for a total of 8 per cent, not compounded. The proposal also includes an additional increase equal to the difference between the actual and forecasted GDP.
BCPSEA: July, 2014: 1 per cent, February, 2015: 2 per cent, July, 2016: 1 per cent, July, 2017: 0.5 per cent, May, 2018: 1 per cent, July, 2018: 0.5 per cent, May, 2019: 1 per cent, for a total of 7 per cent, not compounded. The proposal also includes an Economic Stability Dividend – an automatic wage increase if the economy performs better than forecast – in four instalments. If the contract term is extended to seven years, teachers would get additional wage increases of 0.5 per cent in July, 2019 and 1 per cent in May, 2020.
BCTF: Improvements to the extended health benefits plan such as $3,000 of massage therapy per year and the inclusion of fertility drugs. The BCTF is also seeking improvements to the dental plan, continuation of benefits for dependents 12 months after a teacher’s death, and for teachers on long-term disability to receive the same benefits coverage as those who are working, among other things.
BCPSEA: The employer is providing no details on benefits. Instead, it has proposed increasing benefit payments within the same limits as the salary increases. At the end of the contract, that would mean an extra pool of money worth $11-million, and how that gets distributed would be decided through a collaborative process involving both sides.
Pregnancy/parental supplemental employment benefits
BCTF: For mothers the union is looking to top up between EI and the employee’s salary to 100 per cent for the first 17 weeks, then to 60 per cent for the remaining 35 weeks. The BCTF is asking for fathers’ salaries to be topped up to 100 per cent for the first two weeks, then 60 per cent for the additional 35 weeks.
BCPSEA: No details provided. Any changes to pregnancy and parental benefits would come from the same pool of money as the other benefits.
Class size and composition
BCTF: Establishment of a new Workload Fund (amount not specified) to be used for hiring new teachers. Teachers want the Supreme Court decision ordering a return to 2002 class-size and composition limits restored within their collective agreements.
BCPSEA: No change to current class-size limits. The government’s appeal of the B.C. Supreme Court ruling will proceed.