Thursday, October 13, 2011

Guest post: Tobey Steeves on Bills 27/28 - a personal and theoretical perspective

A slight departure from the usual today...a personal and theoretical approach to Bills 27/28. Tobey Steeves is a Vancouver area Social Studies teacher and is a Master's student at the University of British Columbia and will be familiar to those who follow the #bced hashtag on twitter.

(Re)Considering Bills 27 and 28:
An affirmation of democratic expressivity

Tobey Steeves

Active democratic citizenship includes an engagement with the body of juridical strategies which attempt to regulate the horizons of the possible. In this monograph I share an autobiographical fieldwork of the self (Ambrosio, 2008) and diagram how British Columbia’s Education Services Collective Agreement (Bill 27), and the Public Education Flexibility and Choice Act (Bill 28) directly impact my life. I then consider their effects as well as the contexts of their development, and conclude by posing alternatives which I hold to be more in alignment with democratic process.

Active democratic citizenship necessarily entails an engagement with the body of juridical strategies which attempt to regulate the horizons of the possible (Abowitz & Harnish, 2006). Among the many policies - local, provincial, national, transnational, etc. - which interpenetrate my life, there are two particular Bills that inspire something just shy of ‘seething contempt’: British Columbia’s (BC) Education Services Collective Agreement Act (Bill 27) and the Public Education Flexibility and Choice Act (Bill 28). These Bills were imposed from the top-down and attempted to modulate populations - unions, teachers, administrators, students - and thereby stand in juxtaposition with democratic principles. More explicitly, by circumscribing spaces and bodies in particular, concrete ways, the Bills can be said to embody an attempt to regulate the scope of becomings available within schools, and characterized as despotic or fascist (Webb, 2009, p. 27). In other words, Bills 27 and 28 can be recognized as enactments of political desire which attempt to re-conceptualize the field of public education while dominating and exploiting bodies as means to an end (Deleuze & Guattari, 1983, p. xiii).

Concepts from social theory and political philosophy are most helpful when grounded in an awareness of the singular. Thus, in the following monograph I will diagram how Bills 27 and 28 directly impact my life, consider their effects as well as the contexts of their development, and pose alternatives which I hold to be more in alignment with democratic process.

Bills 27 and 28: Neoliberal terrorism -

In order to force a settlement to the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation’s (BCTF) contract dispute, on January 27 and 28, 2002, BC’s Liberal government legislated a two-pronged but ‘single stroke’1 resolution into being. Bill 27, the Education Services Collective Agreement Act, imposed a collective agreement between the BCTF and BC Public School Employers’ Association (BCPSEA) - meaning that “collective agreements [previously] negotiated by teachers [across BC have] effectively been ripped up by the government” (BCTF, n.d.). Bill 28 added content to Bill 27’s force: It gave school districts the authority to set class-size limits and make alterations to the school calendar. According to the BCTF Bills 27 and 28 resulted in larger class sizes, less support for students with special needs, and deep reductions in teaching staff (BCTF, n.d.).

Although Bills 27 and 28 were responses to local context, they index a constellation of neoliberal values and tactics which have become normative throughout much of the globe (Harvey, 2007). That is to say, the ‘solution’ to the ‘problem’2 was not unique to BC at all, but a ‘hybrid’ (Wells, 2005, p. 110) or ‘scalar’ (Rizvi & Lingard, 2010, p. 137) translation of anti-democratic values.

Speaking at a time of great upheaval, in 1960 American president John F. Kennedy affirmed that “labor unions are not narrow, self-seeking groups. They have raised wages, shortened hours and provided supplemental benefits. Through collective bargaining and grievance procedures, they have brought justice and democracy to the shop floor. (cited by Union of Canadian Transportation Employees, 2008). Today, however, many might see Kennedy’s agenda as ‘irresponsible’ or ‘unrealistic’: With increasing intensity and thoroughness - and with few exceptions - organized labour has been subjugated under the economic reductionism of neoliberal ideology (Harvey, 2007). In the post-WWII era, one of the first troubling indications of the decline of unions in the West came in 1981, when Ronald Reagan fired more than 11,000 air traffic controllers for having the audacity to strike (Lippit, 2004). More recently, governments have undercut labour collectives while diversifying their anti-labour practices: A Superintendent in Rhode Island fired the entire teaching staff at one of the state’s poorest schools (Associated Press, 2010); the Governor of Wisconsin enacted legislation which limits “collective bargaining for state employes and many local employees, including teachers, to base wages, barring them from negotiating over health coverage or working hours” (Dickson, 2011); and, closer to home, the “Harper Government” (The Canadian Press, 2011) rebranded itself as an extension of the British Empire (Boesveld, 2011), imposed an ‘agreement’ on striking postal workers (Thompson, 2011), and threatened to do the same with ‘uppity’ flight attendants if they went on strike (Chung, 2011). In BC the Minister of Education has already acknowledged the governments’ willingness to force striking teachers back to work (Vancouver Sun, 2011). Many more examples could be given from the Global North and South, as well as the East and West - all clearly positioning organized labour as subjugated beneath centralized statist power.

It is important to acknowledge that Bills 27 and 28 cannot be reduced to simplistic categories like ‘beneficial’ or ‘hurtful’, and yet they can be measured according to principles of expressivity - the degree to which the Bills (de)vitalize life in BC. By that I mean to say that Bills 27 and 28 embody elements which could be construed as ‘beneficial’: money was ‘saved’, efficiency was ‘improved’, and an ‘agreement’ was achieved. On the other hand, each of these ‘benefits’ was asymmetrical: money was ‘saved’ at the expense of students’, efficiency was ‘improved’ by increasing teachers’ workloads and reducing benefits packages, and power was consolidated within the State apparatus while the teachers’ unions were subverted and subdued. Thus, Bills 27 and 28 were both ‘beneficial’ and ‘hurtful’, depending on point of view.

In contrast, expressivity, for Deleuze, “is the power of life to unfold itself differently” and “refers to intensity, for it allows us to think a type of relation but not any concluded set of relations” (Parr, 2005, p. 93). In other words, expressivity can be understood as a differential between intensive and extensive forces, or further simplified as an index of difference. An act of legislation with high expressivity, for example, would traverse borders and interact with a variety of bodies in order to expand the scope of relations between/within bodies. Legislative acts with low expressivity, however, attempt to reify borders and shackle bodies as singularities within territories. Over and above the binary of ‘beneficial’ or ‘hurtful’, Bills 27 and 27 contracted the field of public education by attempting to regulate the expressivity of teachers and students. On the whole, Bills 27 and 28 might be said to privilege the expressivity of power and conceptualized as juridical iterations of the will to power (Nietzsche, 2006).

Homogenizing gaps, hammering down democracy:3

Bills 27 and 28 reaffirm the State’s monopoly on violence and attempt to regulate the field of public education in BC by encoding and normalizing particular philosophies, epistemologies, and ontologies. More explicitly, Bills 27 and 28 embody a constellation of values imposed on a population of bodies. They did not democratically emerge from a population of bodies. As a result, Bills 27 and 28 can be seen to reproduce the State’s violent origins (Derrida, 2002) while extending the State’s access to bio-political power.

According to Foucault, bio-political power is a ‘rational’ process of problem-solving by which States attempt to ‘control bodies’ (Bevir, 1999, p. 71) through tactics which structure populations into being (Foucault, 2008, p. 317). In this case, BC’s Liberals ‘rationalized problems’ and legislated particular bodies into legitimacy: the docile teacher, resilient student, and universal competitor.

Bills 27 and 27 did not affirm teachers as professionals or nurturing agents but as instruments of the government, a means to an end. Similarly, students were framed as resilient consumers. In spite of ancient textbooks, over-crowded classes, and limited resources, students were assumed to be resilient and accommodating. At the same time, competition was naturalized and universalized, in accordance with neoliberal ideology (Olssen, Codd & O’Neill, 2004, p. 188). In attempting to normalize teachers and students as competitors - teachers competing against teachers for limited jobs and students competing against students for grades, social capital, etc. - the Liberal government may have relied more on assumptions than understandings.

BC’s Liberal government assumed, for instance, that teachers’ are/were/will be incapable of mounting sustained resistance and that teachers’ working conditions are a political matter - not a debate among professionals. As well, the government may have assumed the people of BC to have short memories. Who, after all, remembers when labour was in ascendance?4 At the same time, BC’s Liberal government may have assumed itself to know what is best for teachers, students, and the public at large. All things considered, it seems apparent that the Liberal government’s assumptions gave rise to anti-democratic strategies and tactics, because the outcome was legislation which circumscribed the field of education and reinforced the State’s access to bio-political power.

It should be emphasized that although Bills 27 and 28 were legislated and enacted in 2002, they are not static monuments of the State’s power. Taking recourse to the courts, the BCTF successfully argued that the Liberal government had ‘negotiated’ in bad-faith, in breech of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In an editorial for the Vancouver Sun, Susan Lambert, sitting president of the BCTF, described a
meeting held in April 2001, between ministry officials and representatives of BCPSEA, (the employer’s bargaining agent), the day after the call for a provincial election was announced, [which] indicate[d] that the intended dismantling of class size and other workload provisions in the collective agreement would be kept under wraps during the bargaining process involving BCPSEA and BCTF.

In response to a question during the meeting as to whether or not the public policy position of government would be revealed, the suggestion was to “run silent, run deep.”

A November 22, 2001 e-mail from an official in the Ministry of Education to, now-Premier Christy Clark, reveals that she knew months in advance that the legislation would mean cuts of hundreds of millions of dollars a year, massive teacher layoffs, larger classes and less support for students with special needs. (Lambert, 2011)
As though to add further insult to injury, in 2011 BCPSEA opened contract negotiations with the BCTF by reaffirming its commitment to a ‘net-zero’ resolution. In other words, the government attempted to dictate the horizons of ‘negotiations’: If the BCTF sought ‘benefits’, it must make an equal amount of concessions. Thus, after being censured by the Supreme Court and exposed in the media, the Liberal government of BC would like the BCTF to concede more ground (Iker, 2011). In response, the membership of the BCTF overwhelmingly approved of ‘job-action’ (BCTF, 2011), the Ministry of Education re-affirmed it’s monopoly on violence (Vancouver Sun, 2011), and the stage is set for a showdown between apparently irreconcilable differences. The outcome of these ‘negotiations’ remains to be seen, but precedent suggests the BCTF is in for an asymmetrical and unjust battle, with the future of BC - in some respects - on the line. In other words, advocates for education in BC must not get into the habit of responding to policymakers and politicians with 'the answers they expect'. Rather,
[w]e must enter the policymaking arena as if it were a mixed martial arts cage with the method of combat open and the outcome unknown and not as we have, as if it were a thoroughly choreographed professional wrestling match staged for an audience that allows us to play only to our fans (or political constituencies). (Cooley, 2009, p. 391).
Negotiated discoveries: Mapping an encounter with Bills 27 and 28 -

After more than six years of teaching across Europe and Asia I moved to Canada in 2007, and my first encounter with Bills 27 and 28 was a year later, while studying for a BEd at UBC. During my BEd program the outlook for new teachers in BC collapsed: Hundreds of qualified teachers, a handful of jobs. Indeed, at the end of the 2009 school year hundreds of teachers across BC were laid-off (CBC News, 2010). I was aware that previous years had been competitive, but now there was a dawning realization that teaching in BC was a politically-charged field of battle and that the government of BC was using education/curricular policies as sorties in a war of attrition against organized labour - and democracy.

Taking this ‘larval’ (Deleuze, 1994, p. 78) awareness as inspiration, I enrolled in the Centre for Cross-Faculty Inquiry in Education, at UBC, where I formally took up the study of education policy in BC. Now a full-time MA student and part-time ‘Employee on Call’ in the Lower Mainland, I have experienced the effects of Bills 27 and 28 on multiple registers: as a citizen, a teacher-in-waiting, and an object of inquiry. For instance, as a citizen I find it easy to sympathize with the concerns of parents of students with special needs in over-crowded classrooms and the frustrations of students who battle with archaic technology and decaying infrastructure, and fear that inadequately-resourced schools will facilitate the reproduction of inequalities. As a teacher-in-waiting I know that getting a job is now a quantitative matter of seniority - not a qualitative matter of competence5 - and encounter Bills 27 and 28 as obstacles to be overcome. And as an object of inquiry, I see Bills 27 and 28 as localized embodiments of a generalized reconceptualization of the social field in accord with a neoliberal imaginary (Rizvi & Lingard, 2010, p. 33-41).

Admittedly, my positioning vis-á-vis Bills 27 and 28 is complex and prejudiced. Not only am I affected at the levels of citizenship, access to employment, and scholarly investment, but I am also influenced by many other factors: (i) gender - male, with the socio-cultural expectation of being a ‘bread-winner’; (ii) age - 34 and yet to accrue any job security, let alone vision for retirement; (iii) family - delayed dreams and inhibited present; and (iv) fears - underemployed and faced with heaps of student loan debt. As a result, I am unable to fein ‘objectivity’ in my understanding of Bills 27 and 28. I would, however, contend that the contexts which inform my political biases are a source of strength, and that they add critical dimensions to my analysis.

Alternative futurities: Renegotiating the demos -

Deleuze & Guattari affirm that “of all the finite movements of thought, the form of recognition is certainly the one that goes the least far and is the most impoverished and puerile” (1994, p. 139). We must push further while bearing in mind that “philosophers do the best they can, but they have too much to do to know whether [the ‘solutions’ they offer are] the best, or even to bother with this question” (1994, p. 27).

As alternatives to the Liberal’s push for a reified neoliberal imaginary, I would like to suggest a collectivist re-visioning of the social imaginary. In practice - although I worry about a lack of solidarity - I think Eugene Holland’s (2011) notion of a slow-motion general strike offers an accessible means of building democratic momentum. The slow-motion general strike is a non-violent means of operationalizing resistance. From this plateau (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987, p. 22) it should be easier to affirm democratic values over neoliberal ones. If the ‘public good’ is to be equated with the ‘social good’ - as contrasted with neoliberalism’s linking of ‘private good’ with ‘public good’ - then education could be repositioned as an incubator for democracy instead of the economy. A more expedient means of improving the situation would be to invest heavily in education, with significant reductions in the military and prisons - neither of which breed peace or democracy. Across the world, “fierce combat [is being waged] with the antidemocratic accountability machine” (Webb, 2009, p. 135). From my vantage, it seems apparent that Bills 27 and 28 draw BC firmly onto the stage of battle.


1 “[T]he State seems to rise up in a single stroke, in an imperial form, and does not depend on progressive factors. Its on-the-spot emergence is like a stroke of genius, the birth of Athena” (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987, p. 359).

2 “There is no solution because there is no problem” (Duchamp, as cited in Janis & Janis, 1945, p. 24).

3 出る杭は打たれる “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” - Japanese proverb

4 This assumption of forgetfulness may have been a safe bet - given, for example, the throngs of Vancouverites who cross Dunsmuir Street every day without any awareness of the history behind the name.

5 Like many unions, the BCTF derives its tactics through democratic process, and advocates for hiring and placement practices based on seniority. This justifiable privileging serves the interests of those on the ‘inside’, but makes for additional obstacles for those on the ‘outside’. However, it should be emphasized that hiring according to seniority is directly impacted by lay-offs. For example, according to the BCTF “educator employment grew by 7.0% in Canada and fell by 6.4% in BC between 2001-02 and 2008-09” (2011, p. 8). If the number of teachers in BC has declined, this creates increased competition for scant job opportunities among new teachers. Furthermore, once new teachers land jobs, year-over-year lay-offs are linked with length of employment in BC’s schools, thus firmly linking career advance with ‘time-served’ - and simultaneously trivializing professional competence.


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