Teachers will walk off the job today, and they vow to stay out as long as it takes to resolve the dispute. Like many parents, I am worried about how this will affect my kids' learning and what disruptions to my daily life it may bring.
Nevertheless, after researching the subject and listening to some stakeholders of education in a public forum coordinated and moderated by myself prior to the teachers' strike vote, I have to declare that I am in support of the teachers' labour action.
First, the strike vote is overwhelmingly supported by nearly nine out of 10 teachers. The majority of teachers are not "radical", "aggressive" or "militant", as a Liberal MLA once branded them; they are teachers in our classrooms, teachers who teach and care for our kids. They made the choice because they were fed up with the government. The terms dictated by the government are simply unacceptable.
The demands made by teachers for their contract renewal are clear, declared Jinny Sims, president of the B.C. Teachers' Federation, at the forum attended by 100 concerned citizens. Those demands are, in order of priority: an improved classroom learning environment, a negotiated settlement, and a reasonable wage increase.
In the forum, Liberal MLA Richard Lee and BCTF President Jinny Sims provided conflicting views of the situation of our classroom. Lee cited all the funding increase figures and how class size has been protected by their legislation, while the BCTF president described a gloomy scenario in our schools. Sims declared that what they asked for is increased support for our school system, back to the level of 2002.
Inside Richmond's classrooms
Puzzled by the conflicting messages, Chak Au, a Richmond school trustee, confirmed the real problems in today's classroom: bigger class size and more special-need students. Au also verified the unsatisfactory scenes as illustrated by Daphne Bramham's recent column in the Vancouver Sun. Classes are flooded with too many kids; each could include eight to ten special needs kids (only three were allowed before).
A report released by the parent organization B.C. Society for Public Education, confirms the fact that a heavy burden has been placed on parents who are relied upon to raise funds for school resources; which include such basic needs as buying textbooks.
At variance with Lee's figures on funding increase, Au stated that Richmond's teaching force has been cut 10% while student enrolment has dropped by only 2%. School trustees from Vancouver and Burnaby who attended the forum also corroborated Au's evidence with respect to the situation in their own school district.
Spreading false rumours
In order to win public opinion, the government negotiator spread the news that teachers demanded a 35% raise, but the rumour is adamantly denied by Sims. The rumor has distracted the public from the real issue, i.e. the fairness of four years' zero increase (a new three-year contract with zero increment, plus this year without a contract due to the expiry of the old one).
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.
By dictating such harsh terms, the Liberal government is responsible for the teachers' labor action.
Worse, the government's legislated contract settlement has triggered a severe reaction from teachers. In the BCTF's earlier released three-stage job action plan, Oct 11-20 is scheduled for rotating strikes and Oct 24 for a full-scale strike. Thanks to the BC Liberals, we now face a full-scale, indefinite strike.
Worth the sacrifice
Given the ruthless terms on the legislation with zero wage increase and no improvement on classroom conditions, teachers have every right to be mad.
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.
When the Liberals released their first Throne Speech earlier, they put education at the top of their five great goals. Judging by the way they treat teachers, one cannot help but wonder about the credibility of their promise.
No one wants to see a strike. Nevertheless, we should be aware of the fact that all the rights and privileges that we take for granted today have been gained by means of protests. If the teachers' job action can force the provincial government to return our education resources to the 2002 level, a short-term sacrifice for a long-term stable and sustainable classroom environment is worthy of our support.
Gabriel Yiu is an award-winning commentator and a former columnist for the Vancouver Sun, Business in Vancouver and Ming Pao. He writes for Chinese newspapers World Journal & Global Chinese Press. He and his wife run a florist business and he ran as an NDP candidate in Burnaby-Willingdon in the last provincial election.