Hard Lessons

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When Alberta teachers walked off the job in February, no one was surprised. Sparks had been flying for nearly a year, and contract talks with school boards and their boss — the Alberta government — were going nowhere.

Last spring, teachers threatened to strike if the provincial government ignored their concerns over wages, classroom sizes and working conditions. Teachers were looking for a 20 per cent salary increase over two years, which, they pointed out, was less than pay increases Alberta doctors and nurses had just received.

Premier Ralph Klein said revenues were down, and he could only afford to give teachers a 6 per cent pay raise over two years.

Teachers didn’t buy it. They asked, if revenues were down, why had Klein reduced business taxes by $1-billion over four years?

To help win public support, teachers delivered a million flyers to homes across Alberta, explaining their point of view.

They also reminded people that provincial MLAs had just awarded themselves hefty pay increases of more than 17 per cent — and severance packages of three months’ salary for every year served.

Still, the Premier stuck to his guns.

Last year, contract talks dragged on through spring, summer, fall and winter ... with no light at the end of the tunnel, and no tunnel. In January, the teachers’ union softened its stand, saying its salary offer was flexible. The government said its offer was not.

The first wave of teachers walked out the morning of Monday, February 4. Others followed, until thousands of teachers from twenty-two jurisdictions were on strike. The walkout emptied hundreds of schools, affecting students, teachers, support staff — and parents, who scrambled to find daycare, or booked off work so they could stay home with their children. The shopping malls became extra busy.

Labour leaders like to say that workers in Alberta have the right to strike ... unless the work stoppage has impact. Because the provincial government has pulled the plug on previous labour stoppages, no one was surprised when the same happened to the teachers.

On Thursday, February 21, the Klein administration issued an emergency back-to-work order. Teachers were told to return to class the following Monday. They did.

Even though an Edmonton judge soon ruled the back-to-work order wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on, teachers remained on the job. That’s because they said there was hope things could still be sorted out.

The head of the Alberta Teachers Association, Larry Booi, met with Premier Klein and two of his key officials — the Minister of Learning and the Minister of Human Resources. They agreed to start arbitration and to set up a commission to look into teaching and learning conditions.

But on March 11, the government delivered what teachers called a sucker punch: Bill 12, the Education Services Settlement Act. The legislation paved the way for a narrow form of binding arbitration. It also didn’t address teacher concerns and severely handcuffed their ability to negotiate.

Teachers were furious. They responded with a form of work to rule. Teachers stopped volunteering for school events, such as school dramas, music concerts and sports.

And that was just the tip of the iceberg.

  • They collected their school board awards and returned them to the boards.
  • They said “No thanks” to long-service recognition functions put on by school boards.
  • They took home material they had bought with their own money, withdrew their help with graduation dances, left school meetings after one hour and boycotted weekly staff meetings before school started.
  • They stopped supervising school dances outside of regular school hours, withdrew from taking part in a number of fundraising activities.
  • Parent-teacher interviews were rescheduled to regular school days.
  • They scratched field trips that went beyond the regular school day.
  • They withdrew from year-end “fun activities.”
  • They made a point of not hanging around the school for lunch.

The three-week walkout, the sniping between teachers and the government and retaliatory action by the teachers left students feeling helpless and angry.

Even so, students still say they got a valuable education ... a real-life lesson about how government works, and how “the little person” has little power.

Marc, a grade-12 student at Strathcona Composite High in Edmonton, says the lesson he learned was that both students and teachers suffer when the institution of education is dragged through the political dirt. “For the most part,” he says, “teachers enjoy providing after-hours aid and they enjoy volunteering their time for sports and other worthy pursuits, but the government has tied their hands. Students suffer both through a loss of extracurricular activities and vicariously as they watch their mentors suffer needlessly at the hands of an unscrupulous government.”

Marc’s classmate, Jen, is heavily involved in extracurricular school sports activities. She says that, because teachers no longer volunteer for sporting events, she won’t be able to take part in school soccer or track and field — her favourite sports. Nonetheless, she supports her teachers. “Because of Bill-12,” Jen says, “the only democratic right teachers have left is to withdraw the voluntary services they have provided for decades.” “In grade 6, my teachers taught me the basics of democracy were born in ancient Greece. In grade 12, the government taught me the basics of democracy died in the province of Alberta.”

Steve, another grade-12 student, says the lesson he learned was that “two wrongs DO make a right.” He says the government was wrong to bring in Bill-12 because it limited the teachers’ ability to legally respond to a labour issue — and was fundamentally undemocratic. He adds, “Teachers were also wrong to withdraw voluntary services,” pointing out that they agreed to help with sports teams and other events at the beginning of the school year. He says withdrawing services only hurt students, no one else.

Other students phoned Edmonton’s Power-92 Radio newsroom to say the lesson they learned was to be suspicious of authority and not to vote for the Klein government.

The teachers’ contract dispute has produced months of fruitless talks, a three-week strike, back-to-work-order, court action, government legislation, an angry protest at the legislature by students and ... a protest song.

An Edmonton songwriter and former high-school teacher has produced a song to express what he thinks about how his former colleagues and the students have been treated. The songwriter — who wants to remain anonymous — says he was inspired by a suggestion last year from Premier Klein that Alberta needs its own song.

The catchy tune, called “Schoolyard Bully,” points fingers at the Alberta Premier and his Minister of Learning, Lyle Oberg. It’s sung by The Playground Coalition, and it goes like this (with permission):

All the little children in the schoolyard
Nice little children — wouldn’t do any harm
Try to be a good citizen, play nice and play fair
Till along comes a bully ...
He’s a schoolyard bully with his little bully buddy
Does what bully boy says — and it isn’t very funny.
You think we’re not mad? You think we like this?
Well ya got a thing comin’ the next recess!

Schoolyard bully, schoolyard bully,
schoolyard bully ...
Schoolyard bully, schoolyard bully,
schoolyard bully
and his little bully buddy
I smell a rat! Here he comes!
Schoolyard bully — take away all the fun.
I got beat up and so did my friends.
We’re gonna stand together till the bullying ends.

(I smell a rat!)

Here comes Billy!
He’s 12!
(I smell a rat!)
What’s he got?
A billy club!
Shame! Shame! Shame! (I smell a rat!)
So here’s a lesson, all you playground children
Stay away from that bully! And find some nicer friends.

K-O’d already
But we’re gonna get up
Not gonna fall for another
Shame shame shame
Shame shame shame
Shame shame shame
Shame shame shame!

Further Reading

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