Canadian teachers force govt retreat

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — After two weeks of striking in defiance of government anti-strike laws, British Columbia’s 38,000 public school teachers returned to the classroom Oct. 24, strongly united for the next round of battles for the education system. Members of the B.C. Teachers Federation (BCTF) voted 77.6 percent to support their leadership’s call to accept settlement terms proposed by mediator Vince Ready.

While the terms fell short of the teachers’ initial demands, such as a well-deserved pay increase, the agreement calls for the allocation of new funds to harmonize widely varying pay scales in the province in an upward direction and for boosting the daily rate for Teachers on Call (substitutes), who are among the lowest paid.

The teachers and their allies mounted the most powerful challenge to the provincial government of Premier Gordon Campbell since the Liberals came to power four years ago. While the premier and his cabinet ministers desperately repeated their mantra of “no negotiations with lawbreakers,” labor solidarity and public opinion forced them into talks.

The teachers federation was compelled to walk out Oct. 7 after Bill 12 ended collective bargaining with the B.C. Public School Employers Association.

Some 25,000 members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) and other support staff unions refused to cross the BCTF picket lines. The Liberals calculated that the walkout would crumble when the courts ordered an end to the strike and cut off the teachers’ $50 (Canadian) daily strike pay.

But the opposite happened. The government came off as threatening and arrogant, and instead of abandoning the BCTF, large sections of the labor movement, CUPE especially, rallied in support.

One turning point came Oct. 11, when an estimated 3,000 teachers and supporters rallied at Vancouver’s Trade and Convention Center, home to top-level provincial government offices. It was the biggest protest there in years, raising spirits and proving that grassroots labor activists were determined to give full support to the BCTF. Other rallies took place throughout the province.

Opinion surveys soon confirmed street-level anecdotal evidence that most parents backed the teachers. Polls showed that 57 percent of respondents supported the teachers, compared to just 34 percent for the government.

There was also a growing backlash by the direct employers of the teachers— British Columbia’s 60 school boards. During the first few days of the strike several boards called on the government to repeal Bill 12 or to resume negotiations. After two weeks, 40 boards, representing 84 percent of the provincial school population, had taken similar positions.

The power of the B.C. Federation of Labor came into play on Oct. 17, when much of Victoria was shut down by a union walkout and rally at the Legislature. An estimated 15-20,000 teachers and supporters turned out in heavy rain, sending a strong message of unity and solidarity to the Campbell government.

Subsequent solidarity actions, including job walkouts and major rallies in Vancouver and Surrey, demonstrated the resolve of steelworkers, woodworkers, longshore workers, and public workers to rally to the teachers’ cause.

In response to growing public pressure, the government suddenly expanded Ready’s role in the dispute from reviewing the overall negotiations to proposing a tentative settlement. A rally of close to 10,000 people at Vancouver’s Pacific Coliseum Oct. 21, with thousands more turning out in Surrey, gave further momentum to the teachers’ struggle.

The Ready report, which embodied the final terms, was agreed to by the Campbell government in writing, something the BCTF insisted upon, only after considerable foot-dragging. The BCTF executive urged a “yes” vote, stressing that it was time to get back to work and begin a new stage in teachers’ advocacy for public education, including stepping up the battle for reduced class-size and full funding.

Announcing the agreement’s ratification on Oct. 23, BCTF President Jinny Sims said, “Teachers have voted by a large majority to end our campaign of civil disobedience and to return to work tomorrow. We will do so with our heads held high, and our hearts touched by the many gestures of kindness and solidarity we have experienced in the past two weeks.”

Excerpted from People’s Voice, newspaper of the Communist Party of Canada.