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British Columbia teachers -- let's keep our eyes on the prize

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Two weeks into a full scale strike and teachers in B.C. are holding the line. In fact, the resolve at the pickets is stronger than ever. Teachers know that after 12 years, we cannot return to a contract that doesn't address class size and class composition -- meaning also teachers' working conditions.

Teachers are also increasingly frustrated with the blatant hypocrisy of the government.

Since the strike was announced two weeks ago, the government has continued to prevaricate and frustrate. First, it went to the Labour Relations Board (LRB) to have the marking of Grade 12 exams deemed an essential service. It was successful with this application. Secondary teachers are required to try and produce marks despite the disruption caused by the lockout and strike. Many teachers are angered that they did not have sufficient time to properly mark and assess student work.

Next, the government went back to the LRB to seek a declaration that grade 10 and 11 marks are essential. What they got was an order that school administrators would produce these marks and teachers would have 48 hours to "verify" them. In some districts, only the marks from the pre-strike term will be used. In others, term marks were averaged. And in one district, marks were "bumped up" to the next grade level for certain grade ranges.

So, for example, any student with a 40 - 49 per cent would receive a 50 per cent passing grade. The government also announced that the English 10 and Social Studies 11 provincial exams would be modified to remove most of the written answers. This was done to appease the administrators who have been called in to mark the exams in place of striking teachers. Secondary teachers were rightly angered at a government that made such a mockery of assessing student performance and would hence undermine the credibility of our education system.

While the government pushed the LRB to deem more and more work as essential, it took out full page ads in a Vancouver newspaper misrepresenting teacher wage and benefit demands. Rather than properly average the wage proposal of 8 per cent over five years and the benefit proposal of 6.5 per cent over five years, each of which relate to very different total sums of money and therefore the two equate to a 7.9 per cent total increase, they simply added the numbers in a bit of math magic to show a 14.5 per cent increase. The graphic showed the government offer in the "zone of affordability" and the teacher proposal in the "stratosphere." The ad was also placed front and centre on the government website for curriculum change (called the BC Education Plan).

Teachers and the public responded with a firestorm of counter memes and a funny video explaining the math to the government.

All of these actions have exposed a government that cares little to protect, defend or improve a quality public education system. Teachers see the endless trips to the LRB as thinly veiled attacks on our right to strike. Many teachers also learned a lesson when they saw the government use the curriculum change forum to advocate their bargaining position in public.

Discussion on the picket lines is also focused on strategy. On the weekend prior to the strike, the BC Teachers Federation and government huddled in a hotel room out of view of the media. On Monday, June 16, the first day of the full strike, teachers learned that the BCTF had modified the bargaining package to five components, including a significant reduction in the wage proposal. Class size would be left to the courts with an interim resolution of $225 million to hire new teachers, rather than firm limits. Government did not respond to the BCTF's new package until six days later, and provocatively reduced its wage offer.

At the mass meeting I attended in Victoria to discuss these developments, one teacher stood up and asked the 3,000 in attendance to stand if this new BCTF package was their bottom line. Practically the whole arena of teachers stood and applauded.

Yet if this is our bottom line, and we are to stand strong to achieve it, we need to look critically at how BCTF negotiators are proceeding. The first strategy was to create deadlines. On June 13 (the Friday before the strike), the BCTF was out in the media telling government to come to the table with resources to avert a strike. The government responded by worsening its offer. Next, the BCTF called publicly for a mediator, the experienced Vince Ready, to step in. First the government refused the BCTF proposal of a mediator. Then it accepted. Ready replied that he wasn't available, saying he thought the two sides were too far apart (an interesting measure of his reading of the government’s intransigence).

In the meantime, the facilitator who worked at the bargaining table all year quit, citing a perceived lack of confidence in him from the BCTF. Through all of this, there was a focus on dates and process -- a deal by June 16, a deal by June 30, a deal through mediation. What has been missing is the most critical point -- a good deal.

Given the strong resolve and the very high strike mandate received by negotiators, it is clear that teachers are willing to do what it takes to get the deal we deserve and the deal we have been deprived of for 12 years (ever since the Liberal government of the day and then-education minister Christy Clark begun attacking education services and teacher bargaining rights). In each of the bargaining rounds since our contracts were stripped in 2003, we have returned to work without an agreement on class size. The BC Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that the government has bargained in bad faith and even illegally. The mood today is that we have waited long enough. To put that mood into action, the message should be a good deal, not a fast deal.

Mediation worries me. It was Vince Ready in 2005 who wrote the agreement that ended the strike. While we did make some gains, the critical piece missing was class size. I don't have confidence a mediated settlement would resolve that most critical issue. I'm also concerned when it is the union seeking mediation, rather than the employer. The union should be prepared to continue the strike to get a negotiated deal at the bargaining table.

B.C. teachers are resolved. That resolve needs to be harnessed into actions that will secure a good deal that addresses class size and composition. Teachers need to let their leadership know that what matters is not when or how, but what. As we head into summer, and will be picketing summer school, the motto should be as long as it takes. And if the leadership brings back a deal below our bottom line, we need to be prepared to vote no. Not in 12 years has there been this much public support and this much teacher resolve. Now is the time to ensure that translates into the deal that teachers and students deserve.

June 27, 2014

Tara Ehrcke is teacher and past president of the Greater Victoria Teachers' Association. This article first appeared on Rank and File.ca.

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