BC teachers vs. the government: Who won?

When it comes to the outcome of the recent teachers' strike in British Columbia, no doubt there are many schools of thought on the success or failure of the action. Here are two of them — containing some common ground but also some sharp differences

In BC solidarity is spelled s-h-a-m

by Stan Hister

They need to rewrite the old union anthem. Instead of Solidarity Foreverit should be “Solidarity for two weeks.” While this may not be as catchy,it's a whole lot closer to the truth, as the BC teachers have recently foundout.

The sellout of strikes is such a familiar pattern in what passes forunionism in the 21st century that the exercise almost seems scripted frombeginning to end.

First, the union leaders let the peons walk the line for afew days or weeks, which is good for letting off steam and softening up bankaccounts. Then the bureaucrats stage noisy “solidarity” rallies where theyget to “talk tough” (which also makes for great photo-ops to boost aneventual political career either with the provincial NDP or the Liberals inOttawa).

And finally, as the clock ticks down to the end of that second week,they concede virtually everything to the government, proclaim that the unionhas won a “victory” or “made its point,” browbeat the members into voting tosurrender on pain of being totally isolated and then send them back to workwith a breezy, “We can all hold our heads high.”

To anyone who went through the Ontario teachers' strike of 1997, whathappened in BC was déjà vu all over again. But it has to be said that JimSinclair and the folks at the BC Federation of Labour seem to have a specialknack for this sort of thing — i.e. hanging public sector workers out to dry— as they did with the ferry workers two years ago and, more shamefully still, the hospital workers last year.

(It's one of thoselittle things that says a lot about somebody that the decision to sell outthe hospital workers was taken by Sinclair and his executive while they wereattending the Vancouver labour council May Day dinner last year — an eveningthat no doubt ended with a rousing chorus of Solidarity Forever.)

Without Sinclair and his counterpart in the BC NDP, Carole James, god knowswhat might have happened: strikes could have gone on for more than a fewweeks and they might even have escalated into a general strike, imperilingthe existence of the much-loved government of Gordon Campbell. Perish thethought! Thank god we have responsible union and NDP leaders as the lastline of defense against social justice — oops, sorry, make that the lastline of defense against social anarchy.

Now it's the teachers' turn to learn that these days, union solidarity comeswith a best-before date that expires real fast. It doesn't seem to matterthat most of the population supports the teachers or that they are fightingfor the very integrity of public education against a government hell-bent onturning class rooms into sardine cans so that they can slash budgets andfinance more tax cuts for the wealthy.

Or that Bill 12 — the legal club usedto beat up on the teachers — is legislation so draconian that it floutsminimal standards of international labour law and puts BC on a par with athird-world police state.

As soon as mediator Vince Ready did his usual abracadabra and came up withrecommendations for a settlement that gave the teachers virtually nothing,the BC Fed started ramming the deal down the teachers' throats. That in theend the teachers went along with this isn't surprising; their vote to returnto work was a measure of frustration and despair rather than approval.Having been sandbagged by the BC Fed, financially hammered by the courts andwithout any alternative coming from their own union, the BCTF, there wasnowhere for teachers to go except back into the sardine can.

The realfeelings of teachers are evident in many of their postings on the net duringthe strike, like the following:

“We have rolled over and died. The BC Feds have sold us out once again. Thenegative consequences of this last fight will be long lasting. Teachermorale is already low from the continual battering at the hands of thisdictatorial and heavy-handed government, it will be even lower when we enter the classroom with our collective tails between our legs andour heads lowered in shame. We should be ashamed of ourselves. Weaccomplished nothing. We have gained nothing. The state of public educationis still in jeopardy. We are all losers in this sorry battle.”

Meanwhile the winner is gloating. Campbell crowed to the media that the dealwouldn't cost his government a red cent: on class sizes there is nothingexcept an empty verbal promise for “consultation” and whatever wage andbudget improvements there are will be paid for out of the money thegovernment has saved on salaries during the strike.

Vince Ready truly is amagician: he has gotten the teachers to pay for their wage “increase” out oftheir own pockets. And since the deal only costs $105 million while thegovernment saved $150 million during the strike, it means Campbell evencomes away with a lot of spare cash, money he can use for priorities morepressing than education — like, say, the 2010 Olympics.

In the turmoil of a struggle like this, it's striking how the truth getsturned upside down. As a teacher, you make a big sacrifice to defend publiceducation and are denounced by the government and media for “holdingchildren hostage.” You stand up to a tyrannical law and defend the right tobargain collectively so as not to have your wages and working conditionsimposed on you like a slave, and you are denounced as a “lawbreaker,” heldin contempt of court and forced to pay onerous fines.

And worst of all, thepeople you were counting on for support, the leaders who were supposed torepresent you, turn out to be fair-weather friends who are far moreconcerned about their stake in the system than the defense of your rights.Instead of leading you to victory, they lead you over a cliff.

It would be nice to think that changing leaders would make a difference, butit won't. The labour movement has been bureaucratized to death. Unionsfunction far more today to defend the privileges of their bureaucrats thanthe rights of their members.

They have no answer to globalization except tomake ever greater concessions, as they “partner” with management in theheadlong race to outcompete the Dickensian working conditions of China andIndia. And despite lots of militant rhetoric, they have no answer toneo-liberal bullies like Campbell (or Harris or Charest ... or Martin)except surrender.

This is what comes from buying into capitalism. Indeed,many unions have quite literally “bought in,” leveraging their control oflarge pension funds into profitable investments. A telling sign of thistransformation was a report a few years back that the American AFL-CIO wasmaking more money from its credit card operations than from union dues.

Nothing will change until a new spirit animates the labour movement. If yougo back to the '20s and '30s, the pioneers who built the unionsweren't bureaucrats like Sinclair but radicals and socialists who saw workermilitancy as the spearhead of the fight for social justice. It's that sortof spirit that needs to reemerge out of the wreckage of today's “businessunionism.”

The plain truth is that we can't defend public education ormedicare or any other democratic right unless we have an alternative tocapitalism. Or to put this another way, without socialism solidarity is justa four-letter word.

Stan Hister writes from Toronto.

How the teachers won

by Glenn Bullard

    “You always said I was a bum. Well, not any more. I'm going down to the dock. Don't worry, I'm not going to shoot anybody. I'm just going to get my rights.” — Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront (1954)

On October 7, 2005, the teachers of BC launched a strike as daring as anything dreamed up for the movies. They took on a solid-majority Liberal government that had held them in sneering contempt for four years, and that had openly threatened to use the full weight of the courts to crush them.

On the seventh day of the strike, a supreme court justice seized control of their union's assets, prohibited strike pay, and threatened further penalties, including enormous fines and criminal proceedings. But by then the teachers were already well on their way to a major victory.

From the first day, they had taken to the public airwaves to do what they do best. They talked. And talked and talked and talked. They talked about class size and composition and staffing ratios and special needs and a dozen other teacherly matters that were a living reality for them.

They talked one after the other: the wise, the foolish, the arrogant, and the timid. They talked with passionate, idealistic rhetoric and with cool, fact-based logic. In their endless, quirky variety they talked, by turnscharming, irritating, silly, sensible, and always irrepressibly human anddeeply caring. And the people of BC listened.

The government didn't stand a chance.

Across the province, teachers laid down an unrelenting barrage of facts andopinions that simply overwhelmed their opponents and drove them from thefield. Ten days into the strike, they had won.

The Vancouver Sun summed up their stunning achievement: “Public supportfor B.C.'s striking teachers has remained steady at just under 60 per cent since their province-wide illegal strike began....”

The Liberal government asked Vince Ready to draft the terms of a truce.

But by this time, the teachers had talked up so many issues, old and new,that it took them several days to understand and accept his recommendations.Even after their first day back at school, many teachers are still confusedabout the way the strike ended, and uncertain about what they achieved for their efforts.

They havenâe(TM)t yet achieved “a fair and reasonable salary increase.” That willcome later, through the collective bargaining process. Ready'srecommendations gave them a great head start, but it will take clear-headed determination to carry the next round of bargaining to a successful conclusion.

They haven't yet achieved “guarantees for student learning conditions” inthe School Act. Those too will come later, through the ordinary politicalprocesses that shape public policy on a hundred other matters. Ready'srecommendations broadened the union's scope of action in this new arena, but it will take an entirely new set of tactics and ways of thinking, and muchpatience, for the union to effect the changes they seek.

So what did they achieve, besides a head-start on the next round ofbargaining, and a leading role in public policy development?

They forced the most anti-union provincial government in Canada to publiclyacknowledge the BC Teachersâe(TM) Federation as the foremost authority oneducational matters.

They inspired the labour movement by their audacity and courage anddetermination.

They won the hearts of the public by their democratic sense ofresponsibility to check the authoritarian tendency of an arrogantgovernment.

They didn't achieve everything they desired, but, against all odds andpredictions, they achieved the conditions necessary for their futuresuccess.

It will take time for some teachers to grasp the significance of theirvictory, and it will take hard work to turn that victory into furtherconcrete gains, for themselves and for their students.

What's important now is that teachers understand the simple fact that they won this round. They need to hear this from their leaders and from each other, to build their confidence for the many struggles ahead.

To allow the teachers of BC to think that they failed, that their strike wasfutile, would be to disdain their great courage, and to squander theirvictory.

Glenn Bullard is a teacher in New Westminster, BC.

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