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Teacher strikes make British Columbia better

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In 1997 I was in my last year of high school and my parents marched on the Ontario legislature at Queen's Park. I did not know them to be political activists or partisans -- they usually just voted for whoever they thought would do the best job in Ottawa regardless of their party and devoted themselves to their chosen profession: teaching high school.

That changed with Mike Harris's "Common Sense Revolution." Harris's Progressive Conservatives introduced sweeping legislation that stripped local school boards of their governing powers, kicked principals out of the Ontario Teachers Federation to sow division and diminish the union, cut prep time and sowed contempt for teachers in general. He installed John Snoeblen, a man who had never graduated high school, as Minister of Education.

In response, 126,000 teachers walked off the job in the largest teachers strike in North America to date. My parents were two of them.

Teachers ain't lazy

My whole life I watched my parents deal with insults about their vocation -- from the media, from neighbours, from family members -- lazy, glorified babysitters who only work 9 to 5 only ten months out of the year. This was confusing for someone who watched his parents work every night and through the summer on lesson plans, coaching, marking -- even, in at least one case, accompanying my mother as she drove a special needs student two hours to his summer job in Ontario's farming country.

I internalized some of these talking points -- they came in quite useful for a teenage boy rebelling against his educator parents. I remember distinctly telling a teacher that if teachers didn't like the Common Sense Revolution, they should just find another career. I reflect upon that moment often: a moment that defines white, male, middle-class privilege for me, a moment of shame, and, more productively, a moment that shows me that the dimensions of the classroom are far longer than the timetable hours allotted and far more expansive than the four walls that house them.

All enemies of labour would like to colour contract negotiations in the crassest terms: how much? This impulse even impacts how unions enter into bargaining -- over-emphasizing how wage increases are not the real issue (even though they often are -- and why not?) and governing much of the public relations battle large unions are now tasked with in a public increasingly hostile to collective bargaining rights.

But teachers -- teachers are different. It's okay to say it. Or maybe it's better to say that things are different when it comes to teachers. First of all, the notion that teachers are only in it for the money just doesn't hold up under scrutiny. This is particularly true in B.C. where a whole generation of teachers have only known underfunding and job precarity. Teachers undergo six years of schooling, sometimes more, to enter a workforce where annual layoffs are commonplace while mainstream media derides them and their profession on a daily basis -- all this for a starting salary $3000 less than the national average in Canada's most expensive province. Yeah, they're probably not in it for the money.

When teachers strike, they strike for the public good

It might seem baroque to say, but teachers are stewards of the public trust. There's a reason why teachers can say that their negotiations for higher wages are part of the battle for public education, and people believe them: because it's true. When the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) went on a massive city-wide strike in 2012, all the odds were stacked against them: local media of all political persuasions sneered at their demands while a Democrat mayor, no less, demanded concessions and obedience to his austerity plan. Even so, 90 per cent of student parents backed the teachers because they believed the teachers were fighting for education equality. In an unprecedented victory, the teachers blocked merit pay and standardized testing reforms. They increased hiring of art, music and physical education teachers and preserved lesson-planning autonomy. More importantly, they earned international recognition for standing up for public education.

The BCTF has not yet reached the tipping point the CTU reached in 2012, although at times it's difficult to see why. On Thursday, the BCTF announced its intention to vie for mediation. True, the teachers union must feel beleaguered by a decade of negotiation tactics even the Supreme Court of B.C. finds egregious. The threat of punitive fines for legal job action hanging over their head and a strike war chest increasingly depleted takes its toll -- all the while attacks on public education in this province continue apace.

It is the BCTF's right to make whatever tactical decisions it feels will best benefit its members. But after an 86 per cent strike vote with a record 81 per cent turnout -- and a rally Thursday afternoon at Vancouver's B.C. Place that drew thousands of supporters, the call for mediation risks watering down the momentum B.C. teachers have earned. And with donations of $1.5 million coming in from Ontario teacher unions to buttress their lagging strike fund, it's clear there is a battle here to be won.

In my adopted home of British Columbia, I can see what would have happened if Ontario didn't kick Harris's neoliberal thugs out of office in 2003. Public education has been starved in this province for thirteen years. Perhaps you know the statistics: B.C. invests $1000 less per student than the national average. It has the worst student-educator ratio in Canada.  B.C. has 1443 fewer specialized teachers, despite more designated students needing support. According to the BCTF, salaries rank ninth in Canada -- while the cost of living in most parts of the province is through the roof. Meanwhile, child poverty, homelessness and food insecurity are becoming trademark afflictions for British Columbia and it is teachers -- our teachers -- who will be at the front lines helping the children affected.

Many have pegged Canada Post's resistance to Stephen Harper's attacks -- privatization, cancellation of home delivery, pension rollbacks -- as one of the front lines of the fight against austerity and neoliberalism. If there is a broad-based social movement in British Columbia that can occupy the place of struggle vacated by a tepid and insecure B.C. NDP party, the 41,000 members of the BCTF might be its best chance.

One night in 1997 my father left in the middle of the night to make the five-hour bus ride from London to North Bay to attend a rally and fight for public education. He didn't do this so that he could make a few more bucks off the public purse -- he did this for the public good.

Teachers make British Columbia better. They always have. It's time to give teachers the support they deserve so that they can bring the fight to Victoria.

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