Monday, February 28, 2011

Wisconsin: the return of trade unionism in the United States

After the disappointment of Barrack Obama, nothing could be more inspiring than the recent protests in Wisconsin and now across the US in support of public sector unions. I hope this marks a turning point in US trade unionism.

After the collapse of the US economy in 2008 due to wild financial speculation (otherwise known as gambling), the US political leaders and media have tried to scapegoat public sector workers in the face of massive government deficits. Public sector unions are a convenient group to blame, as they are the last remaining substantial unionized sector of the US economy. Using divide and conquer tactics, they blame the public sector workers by comparing them to private sector workers, many of whom are struggling in low income jobs with little or no benefits. This strategy deflects criticism from where it belongs - the fat cats on wall street still taking in million dollar bonuses after wreaking havoc on the world.

On Saturday, the largest demonstrations in Wisconsin since the Vietnam war took place in the state capitol. Of note, police joined the demonstrators and refused to order them to vacate the building, despite themselves being ordered by their superiors to have the protesters vacate ( This marks the first time since the crash of 2008 that we have seen large scale sustained protests actively voicing pride in unionism and pointing the blame back to corporate America as the real problem.

It is interesting to note the many parallels between the great recession and the great depression, with respect to union representation. Not since the early thirties and the depths of the great depression has union membership in the US been so low. Mass unemployment of up to one third of US workers devastated gains made in the early twentieth century. The US corporate elite in those days used the divisions between black and white workers and craft and industrial workers to divide the trade union movement.

And yet it was from the late 30's to the end of the second world war that union membership rebounded and skyrocketed, peaking in the fifties. The impact of the depression and the adaptation of labour to organize previously unorganized sectors led to a fantastic rise in unionization rates.

Wealth and income inequality in the US has reached unprecedented levels ( The union movement is the antidote needed to return some sanity to a system completely skewed in favour of a very few at the expense of the many.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Five reasons school Trustees should support more local bargaining with teachers

Teacher bargaining begins in just three short days! BCPSEA and the BCTF will meet for a first time on March 1st. One of the first items the BCTF will be bringing to the table is a change to the "split of issues" that define what is bargained provincially and what is bargained locally. Teachers hope to bargain more items at the local level.

Here are five reasons why I think school Trustees should support this change:

1. Improved relationships

The collective agreement is the heart of the relationship between teachers and school Boards. When a third party (BCPSEA/BCTF) does the bargaining, it creates many relationship problems. There is not always mutual understanding at a local level of what the language in the agreement means. There is not always shared interest reflected in the agreements. There is no personal history of individuals talking about issues and working toward common resolutions because neither the local teacher union leadership nor the Trustees nor the senior Administration were involved in the negotiations.

When local teacher unions negotiate with local Boards they build relationships and they develop trust. This cannot happen when everything is done at the provincial level and the local parties are not even a part of the process.

2. Cost savings from fewer disputes

The recent reports on costs of class size grievances show the level of dysfunction and wasted money spent on resolving disputes through legal means. If more leeway is provided for local parties to negotiate local solutions, much less money will be directed towards lawyers and arbitrators and that money can instead find its way into the classroom. For instance, while $1 million has been spent by BCPSEA defending over size classes, the Maple Ridge district has set aside money for a joint union/management fund to address class size concerns. This is a far better way to resolve issues.

The more opportunity for local bargaining, the more there is a shared understanding and acceptance of the rules that both the union and the local school Board must follow. Where this shared understanding exists, fewer disputes take place.

In Victoria, we were able to negotiate a new agreement on professional development days. This has helped clearly define the parameters around planning the days and the rights of teachers to self-directed professional development. The agreement has been instrumental in eliminating disputes around this issue.

3. Repair processes that no longer work

Much of the language in current collective agreements was written in the late eighties or early nineties. In many cases, it just doesn't fit any longer. Since that time, we've moved to semester systems, to middle schools, to different curriculum. We've seen the introduction of new human rights legislation, new health and safety rules, and changes to the employment standards. We need the opportunity to revisit parts of agreements that are "stale" or outdated due to these changes. The inability to bargain locally has impaired that process.

4. Allocate resources in ways that support the community

Different communities have different needs. In the north, it may be very important to provide travel costs for professional development activities that typically take place in the lower mainland. This probably isn't an issue in Vancouver.

Variations in communities mean the needs of schools and teachers also vary. These can only be accommodated if local teacher associations can bargain with their local boards and identify shared interests.

5. Improve teacher morale

Teacher morale from stress and workload is very low. One in two teachers leave the profession in the first five years. As the major group of salaried workers in schools, much of the pressure to save money from budget cuts has translated into major workload issues for teachers. A recent BCTF worklife study shows that the average teacher, including part-time teachers, work 49 hours per week, with ten percent working 60 hours per week. This might be sustainable for the first few years of a career, but becomes very difficult to sustain over the long term.

Workload hits teachers in two ways. The first is class size and composition. With larger classes and more students needing individual programs, teachers are spending huge amounts of time on extra preparations and evaluation. A Victoria teacher told our Board this fall she is delivering 18 different curricula to meet the diverse needs of the students in her elementary class.

The second is downloading of non-teaching duties onto teachers. This is everything from sorting recycling to data entry (BCeSIS). Because support staff are all hourly employees, more and more duties that used to be support staff work are ending up in the hands of teachers.

Teachers need to be able to negotiate with their local board to place limits on workload. If they don't, we are going to lose many more from the profession. And we will not have the best and brightest in our schools if the job becomes so stressful and tiring that it is unmanageable.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Victoria schools open despite heavy snowfall and safety risks

Greater Victoria woke up this morning to significant snowfall and blizzard like conditions. Schools in Sooke were closed. Private schools were closed. Camosun college was closed. The police issued a travel advisory - "Victoria Police are advising the public to stay off the roads and only drive if it is absolutely necessary". Victoria schools cancelled school buses, but schools were open.

See photos here: Times Colonist Photo Gallery

Reports indicated that student attendance ranged from 10 - 50% at most schools. There was at least one motor vehicle accident on school property. School parking lots and sidewalks were not plowed. Many teachers were unable to report to work due to treacherous driving conditions. Some schools were not adequately heated. One school had no power.

Why were schools open? The first responsibility of the Superintendent is to ensure the safety of those in the school community - students and staff. Clearly, there were significant hazards associated with icy and snowy conditions both on the way to school and on school grounds.

One reader of the Victoria Times Colonist commented: "Schools should have been closed today, the roads were mayhem... even the highway (Pat Bay) hadn't been plowed or salted. Totally unprepared, very dangerous."

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Maple Ridge School Board Chair speaks out in support of local bargaining

A recent article in the Maple Ridge - Pitt Meadows news quotes the School Board chair in his support of more local bargaining with teachers:

Board chair Ken Clarkson is recommending the board support an expansion of local bargaining "in principle" to make sure local issues get addressed locally. But, he noted, wages and benefits would stay at the provincial level.

Read the full article here: CChair pushes local bargaining with union

Teachers are very much hoping to engage in more local bargaining. We believe it is more effective, leads to better local relationships and puts money into classrooms rather than grievances.

Most local teachers associations will be opening local bargaining tables shortly after March 1st. We hope to bargain more items at the local table and leave only the large money items (salary, benefits, paid leaves, prep time) for negotiations between the BCTF and BCPSEA.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Smart phones for Principals...Is this 21st Century Learning?

I was surprised to read a story in the Oak Bay news reporting that the Greater Victoria school district last year spent over $100,000 on cell phone/data plans and an additional amount (2-3 salaries) purchasing smart phones and blackberries.

Read here:

There were several public consultation meetings about how to find over $1 million in shortfall from the budget and never once was this purchase disclosed in those public sessions. In fact, CUPE workers received lay off notices and one teaching job was eliminated. In addition, there was a 10% cut in school supplies budgets. The report to the public is still available to read here: March Budget Presentation to Public

It's not clear to me why Principals need smart phones. As far as I am aware, they already have cell phones and/or walkie talkies so that they are accessible any time during the school day. They have computers on their desks. Is it really so important that they web browse or read email on the go in the hallway? Is this what the District means by 21st Century learning?

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Egyptian demonstrator shows solidarity with Wisconsin workers

Hopefully you've been reading elsewhere about the incredible uprising of teachers and other public sector workers in Wisconsin in a bid to protect the basic right to bargain collectively.

For some good analysis, check here:

And check out this incredible photograph:

Photo From Egypt: "Egypt Supports Wisconsin Workers." on Twitpic

BC School District deficit roundup: How many more cuts are coming?

The BC government "status quo" budget means yet again costs that School Districts incur simply due to inflation, downloaded responsibilities (like the carbon offsets), and increased costs beyond the Districts' control will have to be absorbed in the status quo per pupil funding.

What does this mean? Districts are already predicting significant cuts to services.

So far I have read:

Greater Victoria: $500,000 shortfall

Surrey: $10 million shortfall (see

Nanaimo: $4 million shortfall

Do you know of other districts facing budget deficits next year? Please post a comment.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

In labour news...will the HSA "vote no" campaign have an impact on the wage freeze?

I reported earlier about several CUPE locals that have voted overwhelmingly to reject a contract proposal under the government mandated wage freeze. The locals bargain together with a component of the HSA for a single "HSPBA" collective agreement.

Unfortunately, the HSA bargaining team is recommending the tentative agreement. But there is substantive resistance amongst some members. A website, is blogging to convince HSA members to vote no.

Even if the overall vote is a yes in the end, this represents a significant shift in the mood of public sector union members in relation to the wage freeze. A sizeable number are willing to reject contracts that meet the "net zero" mandate.

And so they should.

This mandate is a wage cut for BC's public sector workers at a time when others are receiving modest increases. Inflation is now pushing up above 2.5%, meaning any wage freeze in a two year agreement (which they all are) equals a 5 - 6% pay cut. And not just for this year,...but for every year after unless that cut is subsequently reversed - a much more difficult prospect than maintaining cost of living increases.

Is this justified? Since the Liberals came to power in 2001, while private sector wages have increased on average 25% over the decade, public sector wages rose only 17% (averages based on data from Statistics Canada). Government interference and wage mandates have had an unfair impact and it is time for public sector workers to say no.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Testing and the "teachable moment"

As a teacher watching the events unfold in Egypt and across the middle east I cannot help but think that we are witnessing a grand historical “teachable moment”. Only a few times in a lifespan do we see hundreds of thousands of ordinary people take to the streets to become the agents of historical change.

What an incredible opportunity for teachers and schools to integrate history in the making into their lessons.

What role do individuals play in making change to society? How do basic human rights, like freedom of assembly, impact a society? In what ways do countries adopt democratic rules? Live newsfeeds from Al Jezeera and CNN provide ready access to see up close the mood of a country in transition grappling with these very questions. Twitter feeds created to the minute updates on events on the ground.

And yet it is ironic that these events took place during the same weeks that Grade 4 and 7 students in British Columbia were writing the Foundation Skills Assessment tests, and Grade 10, 11 and 12 students their first round of provincial exams. This means for many teachers, taking advantage of the teachable moment is not that easy. The time just isn't there.

And so the second “teachable moment” that Egypt offers us is to reconsider the direction we take our schools with respect to standardized testing. Do we want to narrow the curriculum and focus learning for standardized tests? Or do we want to engage students in experiential learning that is relevant and meaningful to a changing world around us?

The Foundation Skills Assessment (FSA) is administered to every Grade 4 and every Grade 7 student, every year. It takes about 4 ½ hours of testing time, but coupled with booking the computer lab, teaching students to use the computer entry forms, and making sure absent children are tested, the process typically happens over a two to three week period.

The provincial exams are written by secondary school students in a variety of courses required for graduation. They contribute towards a student's final mark.

Both the FSA results and provincial exam results are used in the Fraser Institute rankings published in the media every year.

Social studies, history and geography are completely absent from the Foundation Skills Assessment. Teachers in Grades 4 and 7 may have felt compelled to focus on the areas these tests address during most of the month of January – reading, writing and mathematics.

Similarly, secondary teachers may find it a challenge to take a few weeks away from the curriculum in Social Studies class and particularly in a Social Studies 11 class because of the final provincial exam. The exam topics for this course are fixed, and preparation for the exam often involves ensuring students are familiar with vocabulary and the mandated content for the exam.

While teachers always strive to provide engaging and meaningful learning activities, it can be a challenge when students expect to be well prepared for a standardized test or provincial exam which has a fixed curriculum and a standard format for questions. Teachers do not set out to “teach to the test”, but the pressure for high test scores inevitably has an impact.

This is a real shame, as the events currently unfolding provide a far more vivid and accessible history lesson than the pages of a textbook ever will. Teachers ought to have the freedom to pursue events and ideas that have particular currency when they arise. This is a critical feature of engaging students in meaningful learning.

Supporters of the FSAs and provincial exams may respond that the tests do not really take so much time, and that teachers should simply not be prepping or focusing narrowly on the test subjects. But the logic of the testing and ranking makes that very difficult.

Once a standardized test is in place, there is a lot of pressure over the test results. Students want to do well. Parents want their children to do well. Administrators want their school to do well. And the quickest, most reliable way to see an immediate gain in test scores is to focus on the test.

This can leave precious little time to shift gears to current events.

It is not only young people who should care about whether our teenagers spent the last few weeks prepping for a multiple choice exam instead of debating global issues. We all have an interest in ensuring that our schools and teachers are able to seize the opportunities of any "teachable moment". The current testing regime is an obstacle in their way.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Victoria School District Wifi Committee refuses to hear scientist

I reported a while back that the Victoria School District struck a committee to look at the issue of potential health risks from wireless technology in schools. The committee has had two meetings and a third is scheduled. They will be making recommendations to the Board of Trustees.

The committee was struck when concerned parents and teachers spoke at Board meetings regarding the expansion of wireless networks in school, which has taken place this fall. While Health Canada does not suggest banning wireless devices, they acknowledge that more research is necessary.

Scientific evidence is insufficient to claim either that health risks exist or conversely that no health risks exist. Canadian standards are considerably weaker than those in Europe and no studies currently exist on the effects on children.

A Victoria group Citizens for Safe Technology has recently issued a press release because the committee chair, Secretary Treasurer George Ambeault, has refused to allow a scientist from the University of Albany New York make a public presentation via skype. This appears to fly in the face of both a commitment to a science based decision making process as well as a commitment to use technology to ensure inclusiveness. (

The issue has been controversial amongst teachers. The provincial news magazine has run articles both in favour and against a more precautionary attitude towards wireless technology. Given that the science is inconclusive, it seems prudent to exercise caution particularly in buildings with large numbers of children and where the proliferation of wireless devices and transmitters could become significantly higher than a typical home. Some European countries are choosing to hard wire their schools instead.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Do we need a slow school movement?

The other day I read a thoughtful response to one of my blog entries on 21st Century Learning ( In it was a comment about the speed of technological change and how that is impacting the world.

The author is not alone. A common adage in the 21st Century literature is the "pace of change" and the need for students to be able to adapt to that pace. But perhaps, just like the need for a "slow food" movement, we will have a need for a "slow school" movement.

A few years back it was all the rage to discuss how children were sent to so many activities, so many after school lessons, so many weekend classes, that no time was left for simple play. I read recently about a parent group trying to win back recess time at their school. Some argue that the prevalence of ADHD is related to the amount and speed of stimuli in their environments - that children become acclimatized to an incredibly fast response time. The introduction of new technologies - texting, twitter, hand-held computers - is only increasing the amount of multi-tasking children do.

Maybe we have it backwards, and what is needed is not the ability to adapt to very fast change, but rather the ability to attend to and enjoy slow activities.

Evidently I am not the first educator to have these thoughts. A web site on "slow schools and slow education" describes the movement this way:

"Slow schools and slow education can refer to different aspects of education. Some people use the term slow schools to refer to schools that are attempting to bring slow food to the cafeteria or dining room.

For others it has far more implications and includes aspects of connection to knowledge, tradition, moral purpose and all that is important in life. In this sense it refers to the curriculum, the way it is delivered, the process of learning, management of the school, and even if school is the best vehicle through which to educate our children. So in this sense, it refers to bringing the slow movement into education....

Slow education is also about connection to knowledge and to learning – real learning. It is about leading a skilful life – doing no harm – and having respect for all living and non-living things. Slow education is a concept of 'ecological literacy'." (