Thursday, March 31, 2011

More public sector job action?

Vancouver Island University faculty have been on the picket line for several weeks.

Could other public sector workers be joining them? Yesterday, the BCGEU announced a strike vote for 15,000 community social services workers ( They are seeking job security and protections against contracting out and privatization.

This news came just after the Langara Faculty Association announced their strike vote ( The result - 83% in favour of job action.

And the last major contract that did meet the mandate did so with a tepid majority - the HSABC agreement passed with just 57% including CUPE workers who voted over 97% no and a vocal HSA group opposed to the agreement (

The BC government instituted a "mandate" for public sector workers. What that means is that the people making the decisions (those who wrote the mandate) are not at the table. This is a recipe for failure in good faith bargaining. How can two parties bargain if one is trapped inside an artificial "box" that is the government "mandate"? Even worse, the mandate was written over a year ago, and things have changed.

The government often brags about the number of agreements already signed under the mandate. But this spring is bringing a wave of discontent amongst public sector workers frustrated at being constantly told they are the ones who have to sacrifice.

The government MLAs did not sacrifice when they took 29 - 54% wage increases back in 2007 and they have not rolled back a penny of those increases through the recession. In contrast, public sector wages fell by 2% relative to inflation over the last decade.

To more and more public sector workers, this just looks plain old unfair.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

An inspiring Superintendent

Yes, you read that right! But I really was amazed to read this quote in an article ( about John Kuhn, a school Superintendent in Perrin-Whitt School District, Texas:

"In my mind, we should treat teachers the way we want them to treat students. But we don't. We ask them to encourage and remediate and support kids while we whip, label and threaten them."

That's probably a pretty accurate statement about how Wisconsin teachers feel, or any teacher in the United States right now. Class sizes are rising, funding is in desperately short supply, poverty rates and unemployment is up, testing is increasing and increasingly high stakes, pay is down, benefit costs are up,...oh, and students are not doing so well and it is all your fault.

I found this interview inspiring, however, as it is not often that we hear school administrators speak up. How I long for the day when Superintendents, Principals, Secretary Treasurers, speak out about the decaying conditions and the need to treat the front line workers, teachers, with respect and dignity. During the teacher strike in 2005, only a single administrator in Victoria spoke publicly about class size and composition.

Leadership in our public schools should be about more than the day to day and more than about following orders from the Ministry. And it should involve collaboration with all the professionals in the school - a dialogue based on truth and an honest assessment of student needs. Instead, it is so often an exercise of shifting the deck chairs on the Titanic - a whole staff meeting on "linear versus semester" timetables, student agendas in every class, the positive behaviour support system,..., and the list goes on. Not that these are necessarily bad ideas or not worth talking about. But they are not the real problem.

Or worse, we have to spend a professional development day on an unthoughtful and uncritical adoption of the latest Ministry initiative destined to fail because no one consulted the teaching profession (think: grad portfolio, daily physical activity with no gym space, grade 10 provincial exams).

But in ten years in the school system, I have yet to ever attend a school based discussion, led by an administrator, about the fact that we can no longer do more with less and what are we going to do to advocate for a better public system that is not chronically underfunded. I have yet to see the educational leadership take a lead and be advocates.

Here are some more words from this inspiring Texas Superintendent:

"I have always believed that if a person has the audacity to accept the mantle of leadership, they'd better have the courage to lead. Unfortunately, many of my state elected officials play games and issue half-true sound bites rather than exhibiting true leadership. The greater good is dying on the floor while they preen and play to their fan clubs."

Trustees, our other educational leaders, should even more take up the enterprise of advocating for proper funding and educational change based on collaboration rather than imposition. Some do, such as the courageous Vancouver School Board, who have contested the government on funding. But we need more speaking out and acting out if we are going to see meaningful movement from this government. We need a chorus of everyone in the educational leadership and the teaching profession to defend our public schools.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

$45 Childcare centre grant no solution to early childhood learning and care

The BC government has announced a $45 per space funding grant for child care centres to adapt to the new all day Kindergarten programs that will be in every school this fall.

Too little. Too late.

I wish they would look to the Ontario full day Kindergarten for some ideas on how to do it right. BC's all day K program is loosely based on the Ontario model - some of the curriculum documents used Ontario's guides for reference.

But in terms of funding, integration, and the breadth of the program, the similarities unfortunately end there.

Ontario is introducing schooling for both junior and senior Kindergarten - 3 and 4 year olds. It is a play based model widely acknowledged as age appropriate by educators and early childhood educators. In the Ontario model, schools will house child care centres, and there will be a seamless transition for children into and out of school from the child care facilities. Each Kindergarten class will be staffed by a teacher AND an early childhood educator (ECE). The ECE will meet the children at the child care centre when it opens, and then transition with the children into the classroom where they will stay and work with the teacher until lunch. After lunch, a second ECE joins the class, who then transitions the children back to the child care centre and works with them until parent pick up time.

The program will be subsidized, to be affordable, and it provides a very well thought out model that creates stability and continuity for very young children, care for parents who require extended hours, and the early childhood learning of an early Kindergarten program.

Affordable childcare is a sorely needed service in most of Canada (Quebec being one of the few provinces to have actually addressed it). The Ontario model provides an integrated approach respectful of parents needs and children's early learning needs. Why can't BC do the same?

You can read here about the Ontario program.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Why the BC Government wage freeze is indefensible

In the wake of teachers expressing their intention to negotiate a fair
and reasonable salary increase, commensurate with what teachers earn
in other provinces, came a litany of "excuses" from government. These
are almost always predicated on the BC government's "net zero" mandate
- a wage freeze for the public sector.

To defend the government's position, newly minted Minister of
Education George Abbott had this to say: "net zero is the order of the
day" (as reported in the Globe and Mail). How enlightening. My
question is: WHY?

I am firmly opposed to accepting a net zero contract and zero wage
increase. Here are my reasons.

1. It is a pay cut

Inflation is running at about 2.2%
This means that a zero percent increase amounts to a pay cut for
teachers. Zero over two years would
be a 4.4% pay cut. And we would likely never make that up (it being very
rare to bargain raises significantly above current inflationary

2. Public sector workers already took a pay cut in the last decade

While inflation ran at 19%, public sector increases were on average
17%. Private sector increases kept pace with inflation. While teachers
did better than other public sector workers, they are still behind
their private sector colleagues. If public/private sector equity is a
consideration, we are behind and need to catch up.

The government likes to argue that the net zero mandate needs to be
applied fairly across the public sector. Yet that same government
provided 3% increases to nurses, breaking it's own rule. When asked
why, the PSEC chair simply said the nurses "were lucky". Many public
sector unions have yet to settle and many, like the teachers, don't
believe the net zero mandate is fair. The government should eliminate
the mandate and treat public sector workers fairly.

3. MLAs gave themselves 29 - 54% increases

In 2007, the Liberals gave MLAs an increase of 29%, with 54% for the
premier (
Exactly how do they justify "net zero" for the rest of us if they are
deserving of so much more? Even spread over four years, this amounts
to 7.25% per year, all front loaded, while every other public sector
worker was expected to live with "net zero".

If they were so concerned about finances come the recession in 2008,
surely they should be paying their fair share with a wage rollback?
They did that to health care workers. Are politicians the only public
servants who deserve increases?

The hypocrisy is overwhelming.

4. BC is not in a recession

The "net zero" mandate was brought in immediately after the recession
of 2008. But BC has had reasonably positive economic growth in the
last year (forecast of 2.2% in 2010 with higher projections for 2011 -
two year old recession is not a justification for a wage freeze now.
Even CEO's project four years of solid growth

This fact has been recognized by Ontario arbitrators who have refused
to uphold Ontario's wage freeze and instead awarded wage increases in
accord with inflation and private sector increases. If the argument is
that public sector employees need to be subject to market forces, then
government bargaining positions need to change to be in accord with
current realities - not those of two years ago.

5. Teachers are working harder and longer

The stripping of the collective agreement in 2002 had a tremendous
impact on teachers’ workload. Combined with budget pressures on local
boards, the expectations on teachers have risen dramatically. Not only
do teachers have incredibly challenging classes to teach, we also
read/write/implement more IEPs, attend more meetings, call more
parents, do more filing/paperwork. The average teacher is now working
49 hours per week and ten percent of teachers are working 60 hours (as
reported in the 2009 BCTF study on teacher work-life).

6. Low wages impact the teaching profession

Countries with excellent education systems, such as Finland,
consistently point out that one aspect is the respect and treatment of
the teaching profession. This includes high educational standards, and
also higher wages. If we want the most capable to enter the
profession, it must be one worth pursuing - both in terms of job
satisfaction as well as remuneration. Currently, BC teachers are
eighth amongst provinces for wage levels. Yet BC is one of the most
expensive places to live. A teacher near the border with Alberta will
be earning upwards of $10,000 less than their counterpart just across
the provincial border. BC will lose excellent teachers if this wage
discrepancy continues.

7. The government can afford it

Despite the rhetoric, this government is all about priorities, not
belt tightening. There was little discussion of afford-ability when
first a 25% tax cut and then the aborted 15% tax cut was introduced.
Or what about the $1 billion for the Olympics? The BC stadium roof?
From contract stripping, to back to work legislation, to the zero wage
mandate, this government has attacked public sector workers. This is
an ideological attack. It is not based on reason, finances or good

8. The government can change it

There is no wage control legislation. What there is is simply the "net
zero mandate". It is time for the government to review this unfair
practice just as it did the minimum wage and gaming grants. There is
no reason to stick stubbornly to an unfair policy.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

BCTF AGM roundup - Bargaining, Sir Ken, and Minister Abbott

Wow. There is so much to report from this year's BCTF Annual General Meeting. It has been an exhilerating four days! Here is a roundup, and I'll try to post some commentary as well (but maybe not all today).

Teachers hear lessons from Wisconsin

The biggest highlight of the meeting was a speech from Betsy Kippers, a member of the Wisconsin teachers union, about the struggles and amazing mobilization of the past few weeks.

Here are some quotes:

"There is a place for unions.
Teachers will not be silenced.
We need to take pride in being a union.
Bargaining improves student learning.
It protects the rights of students.
This is a fight for the working class and midle class.
And we will not back down."

Betsy received an enthusiastic standing ovation and many teacher stood to thank her and her colleagues for standing up for public education and inspiring a new generation of teacher and union activists to remain steadfast in our long standing fight to protect and defend a quality public education system.

Teachers discuss bargaining

The second day was set aside for discussions about bargaining. I can't really report much as most of this debate was "in committee". However, it is clear that teachers again stand united and resolved to come to the bargaining table to ensure improvements in salaries, working conditions, benefits, prep time, and local issues at local tables.

At a press conference on Monday, all 60 local teacher association presidents stood with Susan Lambert, BCTF President, to provide a visual display of what our 60 locals and 1 provincial table represent. While the media seemed most interested in pressing for "a number" with respect to salary, Susan explained that our objective is not yet specified but that teachers expect to be paid in line with our colleagues across Canada. We have, in the last five years, dropped from third in the country to eighth (by provincial average). Susan gave a number of examples showing how BC teachers living less than an hours drive from their Alberta counterparts are earning roughly $10,000 less. I was myself asked about "a number" but can confirm (as a member of the provincial bargaining team!) that we have not in fact arrived at "a number". But what is clear is that to maintain excellence in our system we need to ensure we attract teachers into the profession. It is difficult to do that when housing is in many of BC's cities the most expensive in the country, while salaries are sorely lagging.

Teachers engage in debate over future of education with Sir Ken Robinson

The keynote speaker for this year's AGM was no other than the much talked about Sir Ken Robinson. While Sir Ken provided a very funny and entertaining speech, I personally found it lacking in substance.

Perhaps the best part of Sir Ken's message is his humanitarian respect for the right of every individual to attain their fullest potential and he clearly sees this is as the primary objective of any education system. This, I believe, is what so many find so inspiring in his words. But he has almost nothing to say about how to get there. In fact, I was disappointed that while he made the point that the teacher/student relationship is the most critical piece in learning, he placed practically no accountability at the hands of those who support and design and fund the system - administrators, school boards, governments. He made vague references to politicians making decisions that didn't work out, but really did not make any analysis of why they make those decisions or how those decisions adversely impact how teachers are able to meet student's needs.

Minister Abbott addresses teachers

Certainly the most surprising and unexpected moments of this year's AGM came on the last day when the new Education Minister, George Abbott, addressed the convention.

This was the first time in ten year's that a Minister has come to speak to teachers and his mere presence motivated some in the audience to stand and applaude at his arrival.

His speech seemed designed at first to offer an olive branch. He discussed his own background in teaching. He talked about his own and his children's experiences in the BC public system and how successful they had been (noticeably in contrast to the last Minister of Education who spoke to teachers - the NDP's Moe Sihota - whose daughter attended a private school in Victoria). He thanked teachers for our work.

He addressed three policy issues - teacher job satisfaction, technology, and personalized learning. The first was a welcome surprise. This is the first time I have heard any Liberal politician acknowledge that the stresses on the profession are causing problems with job satisfaction and it is borne out statistically in the BCTF's recent survey of BC teachers on this subject. I was pleased to hear him acknowledge that job satisfaction impacts learning and that this is a fundamental piece of a quality public system.

His remarks about technology were not particularly interesting. He mentioned facebook and twitter (who doesn't?) and said he doesn't particularly know what all this should look like but it is important.

Similarly, his remarks regarding personalized learning were without much in the way of detail or substance. However I appreciate there is no rush to judgement and it is no doubt a good thing that a new Minister comes admiting he needs to learn. This is a far cry from the attitude of Christy Clark, who entered the Education Ministry with a plan for complete overhaul having never talked to teachers.

Perhaps the most interesting message, and the one that leads me to question his sincerity, was that he was there to listen and dialogue. He made a point of saying this several times. He will talk to Susan. He will talk to the BCTF Executive. He will talk to teachers. We took him at his word.

After his speech (which went significantly over time), he had time remaining to listen to only two teachers from the floor (from the dozens lined up at the microphone). These first two speakers were young teachers who described the learning conditions in their classrooms. They were eloquent and spoke from the heart. They called on him to listen and they called on him to act. Teachers rose in support. He responded to the first, but then after the second the chairperson advised he was at the end of his scheduled time and Susan gave some closing remarks inviting him to do some "homework" reading the BCTF's vision for our future: Better Schools for BC.

He then proceeded to chat with the media outside the room for an additional twenty minutes, and go off to the Bill Good show for an interview. So I guess we know he will "listen" but perhaps only if his media engagements don't get in the way.

And what was his message to the media? There might be a teachers strike because the two sides are too far apart, and if so, the government might have to legislate teachers back to work.

What a way to start a "new" relationship.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Classes cancelled at Vancouver Island University

The faculty at Vancouver Island University gave 72 strike notice earlier this wek and the university has cancelled classes at the Nanaimo and regional campuses today. It is the first strike in this union's history.

Negotiations broke down earlier in the week. The faculty contract expired in March 2010, and looming budget cuts are expected to result in 60 layoffs and substantial program cuts. Meanwhile, the union asserts that funding to administrative positions has increased by 40%. Job security is a main issue and the faculty does not want to see any layoffs. The university claims they cannot do this within the funding freeze from the provincial government.

With the prospect of program cuts many students are supporting the faculty. At a rally on Wednesday, students showed support for faculty and expressed concerns that they would not be able to finish their degree is there were program cuts.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Teacher bargaining begins

This week marked the beginning for teacher bargaining. Both provincial and some local tables met to arrange dates and agree on bargaining protocols.

Since our last round of bargaining, teachers have fallen behind other Canadian jurisdictions in a variety of areas. With respect to salary, teachers have gone from 3rd in the country (behind Alberta and Ontario) to bottom of the pack, now lagging behind the prairie provinces as well. A teacher in Alberta makes $15,000 more than a teacher in BC. A teacher in Ontario makes about $10,000 more than a teacher in BC.

Teachers are also behind in preparation time (less than half of what Ontario teachers receive). We have not had improvements in benefits in 18 years.

The government, meanwhile, continues to assert it's "net zero" mandate. This is simply a statement that their position is to spend net zero. Of course, every bargaining session opens with positions that are often apart. I believe "opening position" is a better description than mandate. There is no law in place requiring the net zero, nor in fact has the government lived up to it - nurses singed a deal with 3 percent increases.

Although the recent HSA agreement, which met the net zero, was ratified by members, the ratification numbers were noticeably low - 57%. The CUPE members in the same bargaining group voted 97% against the deal. This shows BC workers growing dissatisfaction with a mandate more grounded in ideology than economics.

In fact, in the ten years of Liberal government in BC, the CPI index has increased 19% while public sector wages have increased less than 17%. It is time to reverse this trend and acknowledge that dedicated public servants are just as deserving of wage increases as anybody else.

Some good news reporting on teacher bargaining this week: