BC Teachers: a strike of historical importance

by Yule Heibel on October 10, 2005

Supreme Court (of British Columbia) Justice Nancy Brown declared yesterday (Sunday Oct. 9) that

…obeying court orders is the foundation of western society and if the rule of law is not followed, “anarchy cannot be far behind.”

“No citizen or group of citizens may choose which orders they may obey,” said Brown. [More…]

For those who don’t live in BC and have missed the news, BC teachers walked off the job on Friday (Oct.7), set up pickets (which CUPE workers won’t cross either), and took a stand against the bullying tactics of BC’s neo-liberal (i.e., neo-conservative) administration.

While Justice Brown declares that one must obey orders, political commentators elsewhere note that the teachers are furthering the cause of social justice, given what they’ve put up with for the last 3 to 4 years. David Schreck, writing on his own website as well as in The Tyee, notes that

Many of the civil rights we take for granted were only achieved because someone was willing to take on the establishment with civil disobedience. (…) Those who engage in civil disobedience have to be ready to accept the consequences. It looks like the teachers are prepared. [More…]

The BC government has done a lot to exploit demagogic fear and envy (the old “divide and conquer” strategy): it has said that the teachers want a 35% wage increase (not true), and in general it has exacerbated the resentment against those with “secure” jobs and “lots of holidays” in BC’s lean-and-mean economic climate. Letters to the editors of local newspaper seethe with resentment, as if teachers were single-handedly responsible for the very concept of the sinecure. That most of us would probably run screaming from the average classroom and balk at all the preparatory work necessary for proper teaching is something a public only too happy to let teachers be the cheap babysitters of their children forgets.

I’ve always said that schools are only “popular” because they have a custodial function (they babysit your kid while you go and do something “adult” — like working or shopping, i.e., greasing the economy), but it seems that the government wants to convince people that teaching isn’t even worthy of professional recognition.

Gabriel Yiu writes an eloquent commentary entitled Why I’m a Parent Who Supports the Teachers’ Strike. He points out that the government has systematically twisted and distorted the facts to suit its own agenda. One of the teachers’s sticking points is class size. The government says there’s no problem, but in Richmond (a Vancouver suburb, home to Yui), teacher positons were cut back by 10% while student enrollment dropped by only 2%. That sort of cut-and-slash approach is probably typical across the province. The government also whipped up public fury by claiming that the teachers wanted a 35% wage increase. BS, apparently: they want something like 15% spread over the next three years, and keep in mind that they haven’t had a wage increase in 4 years and that they are among the lowest paid teachers in Canada even though BC is one of the most expensive provinces to live in. Also of interest is that the Campbell government is sitting on a surplus, and it’s not the case that we can’t afford to pay teachers properly. As Yiu points out,

As a small business owner, if I inform my employees that they will not receive any raise for four years, despite the fact that the company is making record profit, what will be the consequence? Workers will leave. Those who stay will be demoralized and their performance will be undermined.

When BC was under a record deficit, the government gave teachers a 7.5% raise over three years. With record surplus and a higher cost of living, the government determines that teachers do not deserve any raise. How can teachers swallow it? BC has the most expensive housing and the highest cost of living, but our teachers’ wages are way behind Ontario and Alberta. [More…]

This government has enacted some really dubious legislation since coming to power in 2001 — in 2003 Campbell’s government made it legal for children as young as 12 to work up to 4 hours per day, providing “a parent” (one only) gave consent. That’s 20 hours per week — during school time. Otherwise, it’s ok if your 12-year old is employed up to 35 hours per week. No restrictions on time of day, either. Want your kid to get up in the middle of the night when normal folks are sleeping? That’s ok, if he’s 12 and older…

BC Teachers called on the government to rescind what has been called the most retrograde law on child labour in the western world. But the government hasn’t, and now it wants us to believe that it, not the teachers, have the best interests of children in mind. I find that hard to credit, I really do.

Gabriel Yiu points out that the government has done everything it could to make the teachers look like the bad guys — even though international law rules against the BC government’s attempt to dictate terms through its flatfooted move to declare teaching “an essential service”:

The Liberal government’s essential service legislation in 2002 has been condemned by the United Nations’ International Labour Organization as a contravention of international labor standards to which Canada is a signatory. The B.C. government’s latest attempt to buy full-page advertisements to deny the problems teachers are facing in their classrooms is another slap on the face. Teachers were seen crying in their staff rooms when they learned about the government-imposed contract settlement Bill 12. [More…]

But as Yiu also notes, this government dissembles …a bit more than others perhaps. In his October column, Rob Wipond, who writes a monthly for Victoria’s very excellent Focus Magazine, asked Are We Becoming Easier to Dupe? As Wipond observes:

Prominent people misleading the public with bold aplomb has become rampant in North America for two main reasons: Media conglomeration and passive, gullible populations.

Big corporations usually bring a big focus on maximizing profits and minimizing costs. However, doing follow-ups, thorough research and fact-checking takes dedicated journalists, time, effort, and support from ownership, advertisers and readers. Re-printing wire service stories and composing articles based primarily on pre-packaged press releases, staged press conferences and unchallenged, unresearched statements is much easier, faster and cheaper.

So investigative journalism is being left on the cutting room floor. As a result, the powerful have become almost completely fearless before our media. They’re lying at will. [More…]

Before the teachers’ strike hit the fan, my response was, “yeah, citizen journalism, — bloggers, eh? We’ll keep their toes to the fire.” Now I’m not sure at all. Without strong institutional support — union backing and support, for example — governments will use big media to twist and distort issues, and will continue to ride roughshod over the gains in human rights that previous generations fought for — women’s rights, child labour protection rights, professional rights.

My kids are affected by this, even though they don’t go to school. They are distance education students, however, and their virtual classes are cancelled for the duration. An enrichment workshop is in limbo. But that’s ok. The teachers are right to take a stand, and if this escalates into a general strike, so be it.

Updated Oct. 17/05 entry on this topic here.

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