This letter comes from Elaine Thompson, a primary teacher and member of the Campbell River Teachers' Association bargaining team
Over the summer there have been many articles in the larger newspapers that constitute what is known as teacher-bashing. Such articles criticize the BCTF proposals at the bargaining table for wage increases and contract improvements. But they fail to mention several crucial distinctions between teachers and other B.C. public sector workers who have recently settled contracts.
First of all, not all public sector workers have settled within the so-called "zero mandate." Both nurses and police officers recently settled for close to nine per cent over three years. Keep in mind that that probably will not even keep up to cost of living increases.
But more importantly, only B.C. teachers have been working under an illegally stripped contract for the past decade. In the decision of the B.C. Supreme Court, it is shown that the government illegally stripped our contract in January 2002 and deprived teachers of both the benefits of the contract and of their charter rights as Canadians. The main clauses that were stripped were the limits on class size and composition. When teachers had bargained these clauses, they were so important to the learning conditions in classrooms that we agreed to a 0-0-2 wage mandate in exchange. So we not only lost these important provisions when the contract was stripped, but we also failed to receive a wage increase that would even keep up to the cost of living. Both teachers and students have suffered the consequences ever since, with thousands of oversized classes and classes in which there is not enough support for the many special needs students. So the government has saved money both by cutting the number of teachers, and by not increasing teacher wages. Furthermore, the percentage of our GDP spent on funding for public education has decreased significantly in the last decade. The result is that the needs of all students are not being met, in particular those with special needs.
Only teachers have been subject to this illegal action for a decade which has not been rectified by the government or by our direct employers.
In addition, B.C. teachers are the lowest paid teachers west of Quebec as shown by the independent mediator who settled the Saskatchewan teachers' strike this year (they received an increase of 8.8 per cent over the next three years.) In fact, the mediator stated that the wages of B.C. teachers were so much lower than the other western provinces that they significantly brought down the average when he tried to arrive at a fair increase for Saskatchewan. And let's not forget that we have the highest cost of living in Canada while being eighth in our wage levels in all provinces of Canada. It is important for the future of our education system to be on par with other provinces not only to attract new teachers to B.C., but also to retain the ones we have. Imagine going to university for five years, graduating with $20-30,000 in debt on average, and then starting your employment at around $47,000 per year on a 10-year grid. Graduates can easily earn twice that initial amount in the private sector, and increase their wages much more quickly. We need to attract excellent graduates to teaching. Very few men go into teaching anymore, and large numbers of young teachers burn out and leave the profession in the first five years when they find a job with better pay and a lot less stress. We feel it is essential that we be treated as equals with other teachers across Canada!!
As far as being able to afford these wage increases, please keep in mind two things. The B.C. government can always find lots of money for projects they want to fund. Take the retractable roof on B.C. Place which doesn't even work in the rain as a good example.
Secondly, in spite of global economics, the Liberal government largely created this funding crises with their regressive tax policies for both income tax and especially corporate taxes, which are now not only the lowest in North America, but also in all of the G8 countries. A fair taxation system is what is needed, as Paul Willcocks discussed in his column a few weeks ago.
Teachers have been desperately trying to truly bargain at both provincial and local tables since March, but there has been a concerted effort to stall any progress from the employer side of the table, and now to deny the meaning of the decision of the Supreme Court.
I guess if you are of the opinion that a government is allowed to commit illegal acts and violate the charter rights of 40,000 British Columbians in order to save money, and that somehow the highly-qualified dedicated teachers of B.C. do not deserve to be treated as equals with other teachers in Canada, then you will support those who engage in teacher bashing.
Unfortunately, teachers are used to it and there will be more to come as school starts up this fall. I hope that all teachers will realize they do not need to apologize for asking to be treated legally and fairly!
And I hope that many parents and other members of the public will spend some time in classrooms to see just how dedicated and hard-working our public school teachers are.