Talking with the teachers

Times Review education reporter Alex Cooper takes a ride around town to gather views from striking teachers

Last Monday, Feb. 27, I was leaving Vancouver at the start of rush hour. As I drove across the city from my sister’s place near UBC to the Trans-Canada Highway, teachers were out on every street corner engaged in a ‘day of action.’

They held up signs asking people to honk if they supported the teachers. Very few people did.

Up to that point the province’s teachers had been engaged in a limited job action. They weren’t supervising students during breaks and they weren’t completing report cards, amongst other elements of their work-to-rule campaign.

The following day there was a flurry of action. First, the Labour Relations Board issued a ruling giving the B.C. Teachers Federation permission to go on strike for three days. Later that day, George Abbott, the Minister of Education, introduced legislation that would end the job action and lead to a new labour contract.

Over the next two days the teachers voted to strike and on Thursday the BCTF announced the teachers would go on strike for three days.

On Friday, students at Revelstoke Secondary School walked out of class early, ostensibly protesting the strike but, according to several teachers I spoke to, most of them were just looking to get an early start to the weekend. One teacher said it was more of an act of truancy than a political action.

Brenda Diebert, the long-time secretary of RSS, once told me that back in the ‘80s the students stormed out and tried to occupy the school board office when the teachers went on strike.

On Wednesday, the final day of the strike, I went for a bike ride around Revelstoke to talk to the teachers as they hoisted their signs outside different schools. My first stop was Mountain View Elementary, where two teachers there were joined by a high school instructor who was out walking her dog. The two teachers were on their three-hour shift, holding up placards in the parking lot across the road from the main entrance to the school. Their signs read “Teachers taking a stand.”

They had been getting lots of honks and waves, and many people showed a sign of support as they drove past. In the back of a car there was a box of donuts.

They wanted to stress the point that the strike wasn’t about money – it was about class size and support for special needs students. It was also about not being bullied by the government, one commented.

I’m glad they said it wasn’t about wages – if they did, I might not be so sympathetic. I don’t have to deal with 20-30 kids every day, but I also don’t get summers off.

At Mount Begbie Elementary, four teachers paced up and down the north side of Fourth Street East. They carried the same signs, though one had written on the back: “Honk if you can read. Thank a teacher.”

In that high traffic zone, there was lots of honking and waving from passing traffic. It was in stark contrast to Vancouver, where pretty much no one did likewise. Perhaps it’s because parents and teachers are more likely to know each other on a personal level in Revelstoke, said one teacher.

Over at Revelstoke Secondary School, six teachers were stationed in the parking lot of the arena. It was a low-traffic zone, but they did get a chance to talk to people going skating or on their way to the mill. They had lots of support from CP Rail workers, they said. We talked about the strike and they thought it had been effective in bringing the teachers message across. One teacher commented that reporters were actually showing up at press conferences called by BCTF president Susan Lambert.

Once again, they re-iterated the point that the strike was about working conditions, not salaries. One teacher said that if the government was willing to compromise on class size and composition, the teachers might go for the net-zero mandate. The problem, he said, is that the B.C. Public School Employers Association won’t talk about other issues until the BCTF caves on the net-zero mandate.

I’ve been assigned coverage of the school board for the Times Review. Throughout these negotiations I’ve been struck by the feeling that everything that transpired in the past two weeks was inevitable. While I wasn’t living in B.C. during past teacher negotiations, I have read up on the history and it just seemed like it was a matter of time until there was legislation and a strike. The only thing I wasn’t sure was what would happen first – legislation or a strike.

It’s a pretty cynical view but at the same time, given the history, the government’s strict adherence to its net-zero mandate, and the BCTF’s demands, it was also realistic.

During my conversations with teachers, a lot of things came up beyond the negotiations – the Joseph Kony video, the Northern Gateway pipeline, robocalls, Bill C-30 (the online spying bill) and the general decline of unions.

On Thursday teachers and students went back to school. The Labour Relations Board ruling that allowed the teachers to strike permits the BCTF to strike one day per week from now on. That is, until the government passes Bill 22, which will end the job action, assign a mediator (who will be bound by the net-zero mandate), and also change the way teachers are  assigned.

That was another issue I brought up at MVE and MBE – is there any fear of teachers losing their jobs when the two schools merge into one. I had spoken to one teacher earlier in the week who said it was weighing on her mind, however the ones I met on Wednesday said it was not something they were worried about.

Both Anne Cooper, the district superintendent, and Jennifer Wolney, the acting-president of the Revelstoke Teachers’ Association, told me they would be figuring out who moves into the new school based on language in the old contract.


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