Sunday, December 21, 2014

Badass Book Review: The Future of our Schools, Teachers Unions and Social Justice by Lois Weiner

Badass Book Review: The Future of our Schools, Teachers Unions and Social Justice by Lois Weiner

Since the massive public sector upsurge in the 60's and 70's, teachers unions in the US have been in a long steady decline in power. Only very recently, with the 2012 Chicago teachers strike, have we seen any resurgence in teacher union power. Why is this?

Weiner presents an overview of the pitfalls of teacher unionism and what teachers can do to revive their organizations. For any teacher anywhere, frustrated by the untenable working and teaching conditions we now face, this book is essential reading. She describes the project well in a way any teacher can relate to: "The best way to explain what the union should be is to describe what it should not be, which is like most schools: hierarchical and paternalistic." Sound familiar?

Weiner herself has a long tenure in the teaching profession and with teacher unions. She therefore brings real expertise to an analysis of the history of teacher unionism in the US and the prescription for more effective unions. Key to her understanding is a focus on rank and file activism and social unionism. While she is using US examples and history, the global nature of the education reform movement means that her arguments are really relevant for any teacher, anywhere.

Social unionism is a type of organizing philosophy that contrasts with another historic trend - business unionism. In Weiner's approach, social unionism has two key elements. The first is  to adopt a set of issues and bargaining objectives that reach beyond traditional "bread and butter" demands like wages and pensions. This has traditionally meant objectives such as smaller classes and more recently the fight against standardized testing. She argues, rightly, that in a public sector context, these bridges with the community are essential to creating the social power necessary to win. Weiner writes, "One essential change from what occurred in the 1960s and 1970s is that we must now reach out to allies to ask how they think the union might use its legal and political power, including the right to negotiate legal agreements, to improve schools....It's critical that teachers understand that we are in a greatly weakened position, and parents, students, and community activists are being courted quite seductively by our opponents."

If you are a teacher in the BCTF, you might think we already do this - we are a social justice union. But I believe Weiner is arguing for a more organic and connected form of working together. While we have, in BC, approached bargaining with a view to improved learning conditions, we have not seriously engaged with some objectives that are clearly a high priority for parents, such as playground equipment and seismic upgrades. We have instead sought out parents as allies to our objectives.

The second critical component to social movement unionism (which I think distinguishes it from social justice unionism), is the requirement to have grass-roots, rank and file activism and democratic control of union decision making.

"Often union members assume someone else - anyone else - will run the union, and it will, somehow, continue to exist. Their perception and passivity are supported by the leadership's conception of the union. Perhaps without realizing it, members and leaders accept the "service model" of unionism that predominates in US labour. In this model, sometimes referred to as "business unionism," the union is run like a business and exists to provide services including lower rates for auto insurance; benefits from a welfare fund; pension advice; contract negotiations; and perhaps filing a grievance. Officers or staff make decisions on the members' behalf. The union as an organization functions based on the assumption (generally unarticulated, unless it's challenged) that paid officials know best about everything. They're supposedly the experts. Often they conduct negotiations in secret, reporting  back only when a tentative agreement has been reached. Then members have the legal right to vote on whether the contract should be approved. But other than voting on a contract and electing officers every few years, members are passive."

I'm sure this description speaks to many trade unionists, not just in teacher unions but throughout the labour movement. And while there may be aspects that are more or less true in any given union, we need to be always reminding ourselves and encouraging as much member democracy as possible in every situation. This is not just about fetishizing democracy, it is actually needed to create powerful unions that can win.

Finally Weiner touches on a number of issues that can divide us, such as race and gender, and focuses on some that are very particular to teaching. One is the "nurturing" aspect of teaching, and to what degree teacher unions should "defend schooling's social purposes and teaching's nurturing aspects". The social union perspective guides her conclusions: "The struggle to create schools that are caring makes teachers allies of parents in creating places in which we want to teach and children want to learn. Putting forward an ideal of a caring school reframes the debate about our working conditions, explaining our needs as workers and professionals in human terms."

Given the struggle we are in to defend public education and to push back on corporate and privatizing reforms, this book is a timely guide on how to revitalize our unions so that we can not just stop the tsunami of neoliberalism, but actually make gains and improve our schools.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Badass Book Review: Raising Expectations & Raising Hell, by Jane McAlevey

Book Review: Raising expectations (and Raising hell): My Decade Fighting for the Labor Movement, by Jane McAlevey

It's been a tough couple of decades to be a trade unionist. Since the early nineties, with Paul Martin's cuts to transfer payments, through the Mike Harris's assaults, to the BC Liberal's ripping up contracts and the Harper Tories legislating them, it seems increasingly hard to find strategies that win.

Yet paradoxically, since about 2011, there has been a notable upsurge in progressive movements: teachers in Wisconsin, the squares of Egypt and Turkey, the world wide Occupy movement, the Maple Spring, Ferguson, and Burnaby mountain. These are just a handful of the recent uprisings against neoliberalism. Clearly, dissatisfaction with the status quo is rampant. So why can't workers seem to harness this same energy?

On the worker front, the last three years in Canada have been pretty dismal. The wholesale dismantling of Canada Post, the ongoing decline of union density, increasing government intervention in contract negotiations, forced restructuring of bargaining units, tepid, long contracts mediated by Vince Ready, two tier contracts, attacks on pensions, Bill C-377, the list goes on.

Enter some optimism in the form of Jane McAlevey. During a period of general union decline, the mid 2000's, she worked in one of the toughest right to work states to build strong unions and win good contracts. Her book provides not only a much needed dose of excitement, but also many lessons to rebuild worker power everywhere.

She takes us on a personal account of her journey through the world of the SEIU. Having come from the student and social movements, she brought with her a philosophy perfectly suited to trade unionism - an analysis of power. And she correctly sees power rooted directly in the worker. Although she only quotes Marx once, the book is a glowing example of the need for workers to take and build power themselves.

The main section of the book describes her fight in Nevada to win new certifications and new contracts in public and private sector hospitals. For any trade union activist, the little details will be an enjoyable read, and full of practical ideas to implement yourself. My favourite, and what I sense was the most powerful, was the use of very large worker bargaining teams. She describes in detail how the Nevada local built up the strength to force a thousand member, cross workplace, bargaining team on a powerful, intransigent employer.

Along the way, she outlines some very important lessons for trade unionists: the weakness of legal strategies; the importance of what she terms "whole worker" organizing, but what could be called a form of social movement unionism; the weakness of craft organizing and the sectionalism it inspires; and the dreadful and counter productive turf wars of the union bureaucrats in their endless fights for power from each other, instead of the bosses.

Every argument is made in straight forward, concrete terms. This again is especially useful for those hoping to win these same arguments in our own unions. For example, she describes the dangers of "elite" craft unions by comparing the nurse-to-patient ratios won in California, by a nurses only union, to those won in Nevada, where the whole hospital is in one local under one contract. Comparing the two, she notes: "But in our CHW contracts, we also won language prohibiting management, as they implemented our new nurse-to-patient ratios, from cutting non-nurse positions. This difference is crucial. Because the California Nurses Union was only fighting for the elite workers, the intent of the California law [to create nurse-to-patient ratios], when it took effect, was grossly undermined by hospital bosses, who gutted their ancillary staffs to pay for the additional nurses they were required to hire." This same story is played out all the time to the detriment of us all.

There are a few ideas and opinions that will be thought provoking, to say the least. One is her attitude towards the grievance process, of which she is extremely critical. However this has to be taken in the context she found herself in - one where grievances are used by bureaucrats to build internal political power within the union. Nevertheless, as some critics have written, the grievance process is also often used as a potent tool along with organizing and many moribund unions suffer from filing too few grievances, not too many.

Also potentially controversial is her opinion on minimum wage organizing, which she considers a diversion from the immediate task of building the strength and power from a union's base outward in stable workplaces. But it is worth thinking hard about what she is saying, particularly as we have seen the same phenomena here at home. The BC Federation of Labour's $15/hour campaign is absolutely worthwhile and an important fight that needs labour's support. But given the many battles labour is facing it is arguably a tangential focus away from building genuine worker power within existing unions to win gains for our members through real solidarity and action. Moreover, workers' ultimate power is the strike in the workplace, and the yet the minimum wage campaigns have been predominantly politically based.

The one area where I do think McAlevey veers from a genuinely rank and file approach is her lack of focus on internal union democracy and acceptance of staff models of organizing. Despite her insistence on building worker power at every step, she nevertheless still sees and does this through initiation by paid organizers. Arguably, when things eventually fall apart, one factor is that not enough energy has been spent on building internal democratic processes so that the new worker leaders are able to withstand the massive onslaught from the bureaucracy to quash their power. She aptly describes the new confidence workers develop in confronting management, but not those within their own union impeding their grass-roots control. Ultimately, workers have to transform their own unions themselves, not with outsiders.

Nevertheless the book is undoubtedly a welcome breath of fresh air in a landscape where many worker activists are feeling downtrodden and unable to win. It provides both the inspiration and concrete organizing examples to inspire any activist committed to winning a better world through the power of their union.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

BC's Site C Dam - Another stack in the LNG house of cards

The BC government announced today that they were going ahead with an $8.8 billion commitment to build BC's largest dam - "Site C". A few (even on the left) believe we should support Site C, as a large, green public energy infrastructure project. It is important to understand that that is not what this is.

Critics of the project consist of most of the province that isn't involved in the building and resource extraction industry. First nations oppose the project. Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the BC Union of Indian Chiefs was one of the first to condemn the decision. The flooding will destroy a number of First Nations sites and is actively opposed, with law suits pending. Local communities generally oppose the project, concerned about the impact of a massive influx of people in an area already experiencing growth. The nearest municipality of Fort St. John cannot currently handle an increase of so many workers and would face strains on public infrastructure such as schools and hospitals and other public services. The residents of the 5500 hectares of fertile farm land that will be flooded obviously oppose the project.

Yet the approval should come as no surprise given the Premier's unbreakable allegiance to her ill-fated plan to make BC wealthy (or should I say some BC businessmen wealthy). This was her smoking gun in the most recent election.

On almost every metric, this project makes little sense. BC does not currently need the energy and perhaps never will. That was the sentiment of the first two decisions of the BC Utilities Commission in 1982 and 1989 which was effectively shut out of this round of decision making.

The project is estimated to cost $8.8 billion, but will realistically be closer to $10 - $20 billion given the history of costing for large government projects. To put this in perspective, just this week the very same government said it couldn't afford to pay for adults to upgrade their high school coursework to pursue post-secondary opportunities because the $20 million was too rich. This project could probably pay for smaller class sizes, free childcare, and housing all our homeless. Or how about programs to address the highest poverty rate in Canada?

While hydro electrical power may appear "clean", many believe the real purpose of the dam is to support the proposed Liquefied Natural Gas projects the Premier is so desperately trying to attract to the province. First, they introduced a tax rate of only half what they proposed during the election (which sadly had the support of the NDP as well). Now, they are providing an external energy source to support those projects, should any of them ever proceed. This project might appear to be a large, green, government infrastructure project, but the LNG component makes it more like government's part of a public/private partnership to develop natural gas extraction. This means a net increase in consumption of energy, including dirty energy.

Site C is just one more component of the public infrastructure needed to "entice" (publicly subsidize) the LNG industry. As I reported previously, the provincial mandate in education - both high school level and for colleges - is to target funds into trades programs designed to fast track students as quickly as possible into resource jobs. The trajectory of government on every front seems to have only one purpose in mind - turn BC into the next Alberta.

Lost on no one is that just as the announcement was made, the entire world is consumed with falling gas and oil prices, making new LNG investment by private interests increasingly unlikely. The Premier's entire provincial agenda is more and more looking like the last desperate attempt to win in the bursting resource extraction bubble.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Mind of Christy Clark

My colleagues and I were somewhat perplexed at the lunch table this week to grasp the motivation behind the latest decision of the BC Liberals to end funding for adult graduates to upgrade their high school courses.

OK yes, it is obvious they want to fund less and charge more fees. But how does this fit with the grander scheme of grooming BC's youth towards a life of resource extraction? Surely getting those extra credits in Math and Science are part and parcel of the path to trades school and the LNG highway?

It is easy to forget about Christy's earlier life as Minister of Education (yes, those are dark days we educators try to block from memory). But her failed attempt to overhaul the graduation program provides some insight into the broader program she is pushing today.

Back in the early naughts, Christy tried to create a fully streamed graduation program, complete with eight distinct pathways and different degrees. Starting in grade 10 (age 14 or 15), students would choose a pathway and each would lead to a different place - be that university, vocational school, or perhaps right out into that service sector job at Walmart. At the time, she denied that this was a form of streaming, yet the proposal came at the same time as the introduction of provincial exams starting in grade 10 - essentially a high stakes barrier to some of these pathways for children as young as 14 (see BCTF report on page 8).

The original pathways proposal was never implemented, but the curriculum and graduation program was changed to reflect a similar approach. The graduation program now includes grade 10 - meaning decisions are made one year younger than the previous graduation program. Courses in key academic areas such as Math and English and Science that are included in the program include lower level curriculum which is not accepted for university entrance. For example, Math essentially has three pathways - what was first "Essentials", "Applications" and "Principles" and is now "Workplace", "Foundations" and "Pre-Calculus". Regardless of the titles, one is for graduation only, one is for vocational program entry, and one is for university entry.

Christy left government shortly after these changes. During Gordon Campbell's tenure, the focus of government education disruption was somewhat different. Entranced by technology and the Global Education Reform Movement, Campbell's year were more closely aligned with the project for 21st Century Learning (see my critique here). But Christy is back and her original vision has come with her, albeit with a heavily shifted focus not to any old vocation, but towards vocational training primarily in the trades and resource sector. Thus the government has mostly abandoned Campbell's BC Education Plan (whatever it was), the "vision for 21st Century Learning" from the BC Technology Council, and replaced these with the BC Skills for Jobs Blueprint.

If you haven't had a look at the Blueprint yet, you should. It aims to redirect students from a comprehensive senior secondary program into a trades training program that will merge seamlessly from secondary school to college. Many of the pieces are already in place, and a student can already begin their trades training in Grade 10 and be taking dual credit courses at college in Grade 12 and be ready to work shortly thereafter. Passport to Education grants, which gave some grants to graduating students and were applicable for all subjects, have been replaced with much larger grants covering only trades programs.

Like every other Christy policy extolling the virtues of "choice", in the case of trades training, this is nothing but a smokescreen. The illusion of choice always comes with institutional barriers that will in fact direct some students down one pathway and leave choices only for a select and privileged few. It is therefore fitting that general upgrading for post-secondary entrance is out, while the new trades path from grade 10 is in. Upgrading for adults allows for mobility between pathways - a genuine choice and opportunity.

Christy's program is noticeably similar and in line with the push by the Federal Conservatives for a national trades training system. Minister Jason Kenney recently took a delegation to Germany, where there is a long history of streaming students from age ten into either university or vocational schooling.  The Jobs Blueprint promise to "reengineer training and education in BC" fits right in with Kenney's plan to "reinvent" vocational high schools.

Kenney also uses the "choice" cover for what is actually a step towards further inequality. "This is about choices for kids," he said. "Sometimes the German system is criticized as being brutal with its streaming in the secondary school system. The truth is that they're just trying to help reflect where kids' aptitudes and interests are." (Canadian Press)

Ironically Germans themselves are looking at the horrific racial and class divisions entrenched in their education system. As the Guardian reports:

"most children are streamed at the age of 10 into either the Gymnasium, a route to university; the Realschule, where mid-level vocational studies are common; or the Hauptschule, for a basic secondary education.

Inequality is rampant. Children from a privileged background are four times as likely to attend Gymnasium as a child with similar grades from a working-class home and, according to the federal education body KMK, children of immigrant families attend the Hauptschule twice as often as native children – even within the same socio-economic class." (Guardian)

What is left unspoken by either Christy or her Federal counterparts is that this is a program to relieve business of the costs of training and at the same time practically eliminate comprehensive secondary education for many students, and in particular those who are low income or who struggle in school. Unsurprisingly, aboriginal students are specifically targeted, under the guise of special grants and mentor-ship programs.

Far from choice or opportunity, this grander scheme is about putting children in their place.

Friday, November 14, 2014

School Trustees - The citizens' voice

Tomorrow is voting day for school Trustees in British Columbia. Please take the time to cast your ballot, and hopefully you've had a chance to look at some of the candidates. If you aren't familiar with Trustee candidates in your area, I strongly recommend you check out your local teachers' association, as they usually endorse candidates based on a thorough interview process. In the Victoria school District, the Greater Victoria Teachers' Association has endorsed six candidates: Edith Loring-Kuhanga, Deborah Nohr, Diane McNally, Rob Payntor, Jordan Watters and Anne Whiteaker. That's who I'll be voting for.

Voters should also consider "plumping" their vote. This means voting for ONLY those candidates you feel confident about. This increases those candidate's chances of winning. For example, if you want Candidate A to win, but you also vote for Candidate B, then Candidate B might beat Candidate A by a small number of votes and your extra vote helped make that difference. Often you get to vote for 7 or 9 Trustees, but it is really better to vote for the solid candidates you really want. Hopefully they win a majority on the Board.

Municipal elections typically have poor voter turnout, and especially for school Trustee. If you do just one more thing to help get public education advocates into Trustee positions - take five with you to the polls. Your parents, your co-workers, your siblings, your friends. Give them a ring a few hours before the polls close on Saturday to see if they've voted yet.

The teacher's strike this year highlighted the many shortcomings and dangers our public system faces. But without an active community voice and a sustained social movement we will not have the power to effect change. School Trustees who see their role as advocates, rather than mere managers, can be critical partners in such movements. The recent debate on corporate funding in schools and the response from Vancouver Trustees and Trustee candidates is one example. We need to build on this to create citizen based movements to advocate for smaller class, support for students with special needs, adequate funding, an increased schedule for seismic upgrades, proper playground equipment at all schools, new capital funding for growing communities. Tomorrow's vote is step one in this process.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Reflections on the BC Teacher Strike

Teachers are reflective practitioners. And just as we reflect on a lesson to judge what worked and what did not, we ought also to reflect on our struggle to improve the public education system. The point is not to lay blame. It is to figure out how to do it better next time.

A starting point for reflection is to judge the outcome relative to our goals. From this point of view, there is much to be done. As we return to class this week, there are still no class size limits for Grades 4 - 12. There are still no rules whatsoever on the composition of a class. Our salaries will increase pretty much in accordance with the original government proposal. Elementary teachers will have ten more minutes of preparation time. This is a far cry from the proposals tabled over a year ago, and still far from the "bottom line" of the framework proposal made at the end of June.

Teachers will still act as the shock absorbers for a system under stress. We ourselves will be the ones on medical leave from the ten percent of classes that are truly not adequate learning environments. We will continue to see teachers leave the profession. We will continue to fill in the gaps with our own resources - be that money or time. And at the same time our salaries will continue to fall relative to inflation.

We will watch as the BCTF goes back to court over the imposition of Bills 28 and 22. While this is absolutely necessary, we will no longer have the opportunity of immediate reinstatement of our class size language. Even if the courts uphold Justice Griffin's decision and reject the government's appeal, we will be teaching in over crowded classrooms until something new is negotiated, and we know what that process is likely to look like.

So what have we learned for next time?

Some commentators have suggested this deal was better than a legislated end to the dispute. In the context of our court case, I'm not so sure. A legislated contract likely would have been two years, with the same wages, and with no re-opener on the court case. The possibility would be there of immediate reinstatement of our class size language with a final court decision. A two year agreement would have us bargaining again before an election, not after one. These are the reasons the government wanted this deal and didn't want to legislate.

Others have said we had no other choice - public support would disappear. I'm not so sure about that either. The public was with us because we were fighting for classroom conditions. If we were clear that this deal made few improvements, I believe many in the public would have stayed the course. Regardless, we have a lot of work to do to build stronger alliances in our communities. Public support was good, but not overwhelming. Our relationships need to deepen and broaden. We can't only ask parents to help us when we need it. We have to be there on parent issues such as seismic upgrading, school closures, child poverty, day care and affordable housing. And I don't mean just taking the right position. We have to be there on the streets, like parents were for us.

It should have been an option to return to work but reject the deal. Unfortunately, this option was not available to teachers. There is some irony that the timing of the vote came in part due to a motion from a BCTF AGM requiring a vote to end a job action. This motion was to prevent a "sell out" from leadership at the end of a strike by stopping job action without membership consent. But it was never meant to rush a ratification vote. Teachers should have had two separate choices - do we return to work? Do we accept this contract?

Teachers had about six hours to look at the contract language. They received conflicting information about the re-opener clause (which had been settled in bargaining at least three days earlier), and about the impact of the Education Fund. The BCTF claimed 850 new teachers would be hired, but failed to mention the layoffs this spring (such as 135 in Surrey alone), or that most of those hires had already happened with the Learning Improvement Fund. This year's new money for teachers is only the amount that had been spent on CUPE staff - probably about 15-30% of the fund. Teachers need adequate time to debate and consider an agreement and they have the right to see the actual language of the contract. These are basic democratic rights that any membership should insist from their union. We need to rethink how we ratify contracts.

The government strategy of starving us out was effective. If we choose to take strike action next time, we need to think a lot more carefully about how long we can stay out. Striking at the beginning of the school year was very effective at creating pressure - especially due to the impact on International programs. Striking in June was not effective, and only added extra financial pressure on teachers. We need a properly funded strike fund. And teachers need to learn a lesson from the private sector that you should have several months savings to help you weather a longer strike. If government perceives this bargaining round as a win, which I believe they do, they will use these strategies again next time - lock outs and long strikes.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

BC Teacher strike - Lessons learned

On the evening of the vote results, I found myself, with great difficulty, repeating the tried and true advice: "Don't mourn, organize." Because it is correct. There is much to do. And there are always setbacks and disappointments on the way to a better world.

That said, it is also worth some analysis on the strike to guide the future. Here are my thoughts.

Longest teacher strike in BC history

Despite the outcome, perhaps the most incredible thing about this strike was the resolve of teachers. Although long strikes are more common in the private sector, for a public sector union this was a very long strike indeed. Three days of rotating strikes, followed by two weeks in June, followed by almost three weeks in September. Five weeks in total. This is more than double the length of the 2005 strike of two weeks. The length of the strike showed the depth of the resolve amongst teachers.

Teachers understood clearly the severity of the issues at hand and the need for extended pressure in the context of a government that campaigned on and implements neo-liberal reforms. Teachers should be rightly proud of taking a stand and making a personal sacrifice to do so. And union leaders should take careful note that workers in British Columbia are willing to take action to stop concession bargaining and instead fight to win improvement. I hope we are at a historic breaking point from the thirty year concessionary bargaining of the North American labour movement.

The length of the strike is also important for its knock on effect. Periods of history where labour makes gains are marked by frequent strikes and by more strike days. Not every one of these strikes results in victory. But the cumulative impact changes the balance of power. Employers get nervous if they believe the risk is high. And this in turn impacts the outcome of bargaining.

The outcome

I do not believe this strike was a victory.

On the major issue, return of class size and composition limits, we failed. The Education Fund, as I've already noted, is a shell game. The money in will in short order be offset by increased costs to School Boards and stagnating per pupil funding. The "reopener" clause for government in the event of a court victory on our class size case will nullify potential gains from that win. The grievance settlement we paid for ourselves with the strike savings, relieving government from a potential liability and bargaining lever.

On wages, the government did shift slightly. In spring they removed the requirement for sick day accumulation limits to pay for wages. They also shifted the timing to put more increases front loaded. But overall, the wages remain below inflation and so this is a concessionary contract in that respect. Teachers' buying power will go down over the life of the contract.

The small increases to elementary preparation time are a genuine win, and this was a much better way to bargain the funds from the grievance settlement. These increases set a new standard in contract for elementary preparation time and this time is sorely needed. This is the only real improvement in working conditions in this contract.

Teacher teaching on call (TTOC) per day rates increased for most TTOCs, but at the expense of those at the high end of the salary scale. This is probably overall a positive step, as there is a historic imbalance in the remuneration of teachers at the beginning and end of their careers. But it does come at the cost of experienced TTOCs who will pay for the change.


Many teachers reluctantly voted yes because they felt a longer strike could significantly impact parent solidarity and the sympathy of the public. This may or may not be the case. Many vocal supporters were clear to indicate that support would continue regardless of the vote and that they were behind teachers in fighting for better classroom conditions. It is also the case that every public sector strike faces a conundrum - instead of monetary pressure on the employer, a strike creates public inconvenience. The widespread, organized support of parents and the continued support in polling was one of the great victories of this strike. This, more than anything else, pressured the government. The test now will be to ensure that the teacher/parent bonds that have been forged deepen and strengthen. Ultimately this will be required to win back smaller classes.

Solidarity from organized labour is a more difficult assessment. It is first important to distinguish between the actions of the leadership of unions and the actions of individual members. Many individual union members showed great commitment. They came to our picket lines, they wrote letters, they rallied. Like parents, many actively organized in support.

The labour leadership, five weeks into the strike, offered interest free loans to teachers and the BCTF. A few individual unions gave direct donations (notably Ontario teachers who donated $1,000,000). But the majority of the "support" came in the form of interest free loans.

To me this is one of the tragic failures in this dispute, and a warning sign for workers in BC. While loans and donations are appreciated, what we need is collective pressure. BC now has a long and sad history of the union movement failing to step in with solidarity strikes when they are most needed. Two glaring examples stand out - long strikes by small private sector unions, such as the projectionists and now the IKEA workers, and public sector strikes. The failure of the BC Federation of Labour to mobilize with us is a continuation of the trend that sees joint labour action moribund. Nowhere was this more clear than during the "net zero" mandate, where there was so much reason for a joint coordinated response to a broad attack on public sector wages. Labour can and must work to support one another if we are to muster the strength needed to stop concession bargaining and regain what we have lost. 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Response to Sandy Garossino

A number of teachers have pointed to a string of tweets by Sandy Garossino, who spoke so eloquently about the meaning of Justice Griffin's decision during our strike.

I very much respect and appreciate her support for teachers and careful explanation of the court case to the public.

However I do disagree with her analysis on our bargaining situation.

Here are my responses to her arguments:

My assessment is that what you achieved is very close to the highest negotiated settlement possible for you, if not the highest.

At the decisive moments it is very normal for those who are taking risks to feel nervous, fearful and uncertain. The art of negotiation is not to blink just at this moment. Yes, this government has a very different agenda than teachers. Yes, this is an extremely difficult bargaining situation. But teachers, workers and citizens have not ever made substantial gains in easy conditions. It always takes risk and sacrifice to win improvements to public services. The history of the labour movement demonstrates that taking risks in seemingly impossible situations is what has won historic gains. The eight hour day, maternity leave, health and safety rights - none of these came easily. We are in an era of massive inequality in which the small few who benefit from privatizing public services are pushing very hard to substantively undermine public education. This isn't just in BC, it is around the world, typified in the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM). It won't be easy, but we will never win if we don't try.

One of the most destructive aspects of litigation is the fantasy that there's a clear or certain path to victory & you just hv to find it.

I actually don't usually support legal strategies to make gains for public services - I agree they are limited. But the path of the tentative agreement is exactly the one government wants: Limited new monies for public education (which can be taken somewhere else...through yet more downloading of costs onto school boards); silencing the most eloquent critics of privatization and underfunding, the teachers, for five years; eliminating the need to ever implement the court case in the event government loses. I don't have illusions in a clear or certain path. But every victory requires risk and courage. If you never take that path, you never reach your goal.

Teachers: You have a LOT TO LOSE if you reject this deal and proceed directly to appeal. This cannot be overstated.

We have a lot to lose if we do take this deal. More educational change aimed at privatizing a public system with no teacher action/negotiations to challenge those changes; More years of chronic underfunding, teacher stress and burnout and lost opportunities for children; A repeat of this bargaining round when the "re-opener" happens if we win the court case.

I am not convinced this deal is any/much better than a legislated agreement which would be the absolute worst case scenario. They cannot legislate away the court decision - it would be illegal and would hurt their case on appeal. I have no trust that the small additional dollars in the Education Fund will translate into more teachers. It is fundamentally the same as the LIF, and during the years of the LIF, teacher numbers have decreased. This is what our own union has documented.

Now is not the time to blink.

Will the Education Fund improve classroom conditions?

The tentative agreement negotiated this week includes an Education Fund which replaces the Learning Improvment Fund (LIF). Will this improve classroom conditions? Not much, if at all.

The BCTF did an excellent analysis of the failure of the LIF, which I won't repeat here. But suffice it to say there are four main problems with the LIF:

1. it is about 1/4 of the funding needed for class sizes that match our previous language
2. some of the funding is spent on non-teacher resources
3. there is no method for fair allocation
4. there is no change in how classes are organized

The net result is that after several years of the LIF, classroom conditions are worse, not better.

The new Education fund only addresses one of these issues - spending on teachers. But this is insufficient to mean the fund will help you in your classroom. Here is the cold hard truth.


In terms of dollars, the new fund will be $80 million per year, instead of $75 million per year. The $400 million figure the BCTF is publishing is for the six years combined. So the increase is a mere $5 million dollars per year for 500,000 students. That is $10 per student per year. The same amount spent on the botched computer system BCeSIS. This is wholly inadequate. The original BCTF bargaining position of $225 million should have been our bottom line. Even that amount is far short of the $330 million removed from the 2002 legislation.

Teachers hired?

The new fund will be spent exclusively on teachers and this is an improvement. But the BCTF claim that this translates into 850 new positions per year is disingenuous. Firstly, as this REPLACES the LIF, the only new positions are those created by the extra $5 million and the funding that was previously used on Educational Assistants. In my District, the LIF was used to hire 6 additional teachers. With the changes to the Education Fund, this will likely change to 10-15. But as we have 45 schools, this means only 5-10 schools will see an additional teacher. Most school will see no change whatsover.

The supposed 850 new positions are really more like 3-400 new positions, and it is really important to understand that these positions are TEMPORARY. Both the Education Fund and the previous LIF were allocated each year on a year-by-year basis. So we will not see new additional teachers each year. Just like the LIF, we will see a couple of new hires in September who are then excess in June, and the process repeats.

Allocation of funds

As with the LIF, teachers will be consulted, but the District will ultimately make the decision. It has been an unhealthy and destructive process to have teachers and schools arguing over who should get the tiny pot of money.

Class composition

The new fund does nothing to change how classes are organized. Critically, with inadequate funds, Districts will continue to cluster students with Individual Education Plans into single classrooms and place EAs in those classes. Don't expect any changes to the number of classes with more than three students with an IEP.

In the BCTF analysis of the LIF, Larry Kuehn asks "How, then, if 500 teaching jobs were to be created by the fund, did the reported number of FTE teachers in the system actually fall by 33?" I fear with the Education Fund we will be asking the same question.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Tentative agreement - Yes or No?

Despite what I know was a herculean effort on the part of our bargaining team, I very much hope that BC teachers will vote no to the tentative agreement. After five weeks of strike, and twelve years of legal battles, this is not the deal that will restore sanity to public education and it is not a fair deal for teachers and students. Just as teachers in Saskatchewan rejected a deal to ensure a better outcome, I hope BC teachers will consider a no vote to let our team know we have to go back to the bargaining table.

Class size, composition

The agreement provided a modified LIF fund starting at $75 million per year and increasing to $85 by the last year. It is for teachers only, which will mean a slight improvement in Districts where sizeable portions were spent on Education Assistants or senior District staff rather than teachers. However, in an average size District like Victoria (20,000 students, 1,000 teachers), this will translate into about 5-10 more teachers. That is one for every five schools. To put it in comparison, Justice Griffin's judgement estimated the lost funding due to lost class size language at about $330 million in current dollars. (Read more here about the proposed Education Fund.)

I heard so many teachers speak up about the need to ensure that we do not return to over-crowded classes when the strike ends. This agreement does very little to alleviate what is the most pressing issue.

Throwing away the court victory

The agreement provides a "reopener" in the event we win on appeal our class size language. What this means is that the language returns, but is not implemented until new language is negotiated. Without the actual implementation of the returned language, there will be very little incentive for the government to bargain it back. We would essentially be back in the very same position we are in today, with government trying to bargain it out and us trying to bargain it back in. In my opinion, even if we were legislated back to work we would be in a superior position. If we won the appeal the government would then be forced to implement the language. We are thus throwing away our historic court victory and the bargaining pressure it potentially creates.

The reopener is really only mildly less offensive than E80. In both cases, we have to bargain back what was illegally taken from our contract and the government will probably never have to restore it. In fact, the "reopener" creates the perfect opportunity for government to lock us out to try and force us to agree to something far inferior.

Throwing away the remedy for the last twelve years

The agreement provides $105 million to compensate for grievances over-sized classes for the last twelve years. Using Justice Griffin's estimates, our loss is roughly $300 million times 12 = over $3 billion. I cannot fathom how $105 million is a fair compromise. The BCTF's original proposal to put this money back into the system was a more fair and productive approach. This agreement means we can no longer go to the courts for a fair remedy.


The agreement is very close to government's original offer. While I would be willing to accept this if the class size language was returned, teachers should not be taking such a significant monetary loss without the commensurate gain in working conditions. We have lost roughly 12% of our annual salary. We will not make that back in the term of the contract. With inflation now running at 2% per annum, this salary agreement is a pay cut.

Minimal improvements

There are very minimal improvements in preparation time for elementary teachers (10 minutes per week), and TTOC daily rate. The TTOC daily rate change may depend on your grid placement. It could actually be a wage loss for long term TTOCs who are above category 5 and step 7. There is also $11 million in health and dental benefits. At 40,000 members, this is $275 each. Hardly worth consideration in the context of the rest of the agreement.

What next?

There are a variety of options if we vote no. We can continue the strike. We can choose to return to work and continue bargaining. We do not, and should not, accept an agreement that doesn't meet our needs and doesn't meet the needs of students and public education. When Saskatchewan teachers rejected the first deal which had 5.5% wage increases over four years, the second deal had 7.3% increases over four years. They have said this still isn't good enough.

For us, our main issue is classroom conditions. We need to say this isn't good enough. The way to do that is to vote no.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Class composition: a human rights perspective

Christy Clark enraged teachers and surprised many when she tweeted that class composition was one of her primary concerns. Those of us working in schools who have for twelve long years been trying to bring this issue into the public discourse thought: well, it's about time.

It was over twenty years ago that Charter rights guaranteed students with disabilities an education in mainstream classrooms. No longer would students be relegated to special schools or special classrooms. They were legally entitled to be in class with all other students and to experience the equivalent educational opportunities.

The integration of students with special needs and the subsequent increase of these students within the student population is at the heart of the "class composition" issue. In the 1990's, teachers in British Columbia negotiated limits to how many students with special needs would be in any one classroom. They also negotiated smaller classes for those with students with special needs.

The purpose was twofold. First, placing limits on any individual class ensures that the overall distribution of students is even across classrooms. This creates diverse classes in every school. It also ensures that any individual teacher has adequate time to prepare individualized lessons for each of those students.

When Bill 28 eliminated these provisions, and with additional legislation in 2002 that removed targeting funds towards individual students, school Districts responded with a practice of "clustering". It works like this. If the per student funding provides some money, and a student with a funded designation provides a little bit more money, then pool that money together, hire a single Educational Assistant, and place all the students with special needs into that class to have access to the Educational Assistant. The result is that in a school with two or three classes at one grade level, one class will have high numbers of students with special needs and an Educational Assistant while the other classes will have relatively few students with special needs and no Educational Assistant. Thus the effect of removing limits for individual classrooms is to create a system of partial segregation. There are the classes with high numbers of students with special needs and those with significantly lower numbers. Specialty programs like Academies and French Immersion can further exacerbate this distribution.

The Liberal government cynically adopted an argument put forward by the Victoria Confederacy of Parent Advisory Councils that the practice of limiting students with special needs in one class is discriminatory. Nothing could be further from the truth. Not only does removing limits encourage clustering, it also impacts educations opportunities for those students in a system that is chronically underfunded.

Charter rights require that students with special needs have equivalent educational opportunities to all other students. This means that more funding and resources must be directed towards those students if required to provide an equivalent opportunity for those children. But without class composition limits, one teacher could have to prepare upwards of a dozen individual programs for a single class of students. Given the ninety minutes of preparation time per week, this simply isn't possible. Moreover, the sharing of limited resources among students and the use of Educational Assistants rather than Special Education teachers means students with individual education plans receive little if any targeted instruction beyond what the classroom teacher can provide. It is not uncommon for a student with a learning disability to have about 15 minutes per week with a special education teacher. I have met a Grade 2 teacher who prepared 18 different reading programs for her class. If a single classroom teacher has many students with individual plans, the time available for each plan and each student  becomes increasingly limited.

Diverse and equitable classrooms are created when each classroom has a similar diversity within it, not when students with special needs are clustered together because of funding limitations. This is what per class limits facilitate. This is what teachers want restored to our contract. Without these limits and with chronic underfunding we are providing the exact opposite. Children with special needs who require more are receiving less: - less teacher time, less specialist time and less genuine integration.

All of this is to explain why government proposal E80 is so problematic in the current bargaining context. It eliminates limits in favour of a small pot of money with no accountability for how that money is spent. We know from experience this leads to inequities and clustering. And we know that limits for individual classrooms leads to diversity and integration.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Class size and composition - a short visual history

I put this table together today to share with parents and community members at our information forum this evening, but please feel free to share.

It is a slight simplification as it doesn't deal with exempted classes like music, classes in distributed learning, special education class, the "fudge factor" allowing overages in special circumstances and so forth.

But if you want to know the basics of how class size and composition have changed over the last twelve years through three rounds of legislation, this is an overview.

It is based on the Greater Victoria collective agreement.

Saturday, September 6, 2014


This guest post is from a Victoria teacher explaining to her colleagues why she is willing to hold the line in our strike. 

Hi. My name is Dana Bjornson.  I’ve been teaching Math and Physics at Esquimalt for 15 years and I’m a teach-aholic.

I am at this mic to PROUDLY say that I WILL HOLD THE LINE.

I WILL HOLD THE LINE because I am sick and tired of the children of this province being treated like crap by their government.

I WILL HOLD THE LINE for those students who need the extra help, the extra time, the extra resources because life didn’t deal them the same hand as the rest of their classmates.

I WILL HOLD THE LINE because I only have time to put out the fires and help the squeaky wheel kids and I often wonder how many of my amazingly talented introverts are falling through the cracks because I don’t have time to ask them how they are doing that week.

I WILL HOLD THE LINE for the parents on my Facebook that have practically begged me to hold the line.

I WILL HOLD THE LINE because I shouldn’t have to send my kids to private school to receive the same education I had in public school.

I WILL HOLD THE LINE because when you read the fine print on Christy Clark’s winning campaign mantra, “Families First”, it turns out she actually meant  “Wealthy Families First”.

I WILL HOLD THE LINE because I have accepted “The Duct Tape Challenge.” This challenge requires teachers to stop allowing themselves to be treated as the duct tape holding this system together, then to share videos of themselves on social media actually having a life outside of school.

Now I don’t know about you, but I am pretty busy these days… raising kids, maintaining a cleanish household, usually working, binge watching on Netflix…  I don’t have time to build a school in Ecuador.  <but I will donate to those who do.> I don’t have the energy to paddle/cycle/run/moonwalk to raise money for social causes. <but I will donate to those who do.>

What I can do, though, is HOLD THE FREAKING LINE.  We need to hold this government accountable!  No more band aid approaches!  No more Mrs. Nice Bjornson and NO MORE DUCT TAPE! Thank you. 

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Teachers - let your leadership know it is time to hold the line

As teachers return to picket lines in BC there is considerable discussion as to strategy and tactics for the coming weeks. I argued in my last blog post that now is the time to hold the line. Should teachers return, the pressure on government would immediately evaporate and their program to eliminate class size provisions (regardless of any future court rulings - see proposal E80) would be the only deal on offer. Teachers need to be prepared to hold the line and take the financial pressure long enough to force government to bargain in good faith.

In twelve long years never have we been in this position - with two victorious court cases and our most solid strike vote in history. Thousands of parents, students and citizens are looking to us for leadership in winning back the learning conditions we know our students deserve. It is time for resolve and commitment, despite fears, uncertainty and financial hardship. We do not want to look back on this struggle and wish "if only we had...".

To that end, it is important that teachers let their leadership know their commitment to holding the line. I would urge teachers to write to the BCTF Executive Committee (emails here) expressing their commitment to our collective action, which we voted on in historic numbers.

It is always the responsibility of rank and file members to keep leadership held to account and informed of the membership's will. Particularly at times when there may be many pressures and stresses does the rank and file of a union need to organize and ensure that the union follows the path in everyone's collective interest. 

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Protecting public education: Hold the line for as long as it takes...

Holding the line for as long as it takes. This should be the disposition of not just teachers, but also parents, students and citizens who care about public education.

With the latest failed talks between the BCTF and government, it is clearer than ever that the government objective during this round of bargaining is to eliminate class size language for ever and ever. And with the loss of class size language comes the permanent underfunding of public education, constant downward pressure on teacher wages, and an open door to more private schools and worsening conditions in public schools.

Let me explain.

The intransigence of government at the bargaining table is not about money. Christy Clark might say it is about affordability, but a confluence of factors have made the stakes this round especially high. Because of the Bill 28 court case, in which the courts told government that stripping class size language out of our collective agreement was illegal, the government was forced, in Bill 22, to reinstate teachers' ability to negotiate class size. Although they took actual class sizes out, Bill 22 did reinstate the right to bargain class size as of 2013. So this round it is legal for the first time. And so this round the government is intent on bargaining class sizes out. That is what proposals E80 and E81 are about - removing class size via the bargaining process regardless of the outcome of government appeals of the court ruling reinstating old class size language. These proposals allow government to nullify any contract after the final results of the court case are finalized through appeal. If the teachers win, and class sizes are back, government simply uses these clauses to negate that win. When Fassbender says let the courts decide, he is just not being honest so long as either of these articles remain on the table, and so far E80 remains on the table. (See the Tyee for more on What's Jamming Teacher Bargaining...).

Class size is the most important bargaining issue for teachers, parents, students and all working people. And not just because smaller classes are essential for quality teaching and learning (which they absolutely are). Class sizes have profound implication on the rest of the system. They are the greatest determiner of funding levels (small class sizes force higher funding). They are the biggest influence on teacher workload, which in turn impacts teacher turnover. Heavy workload and high turnover are in turn substantial impediments to quality teaching. With large class sizes and higher teacher turnover also comes a glut of teachers on the market. This puts downward pressure on wages as there are more teachers available than jobs to fill. It also leads to a scarcity of work for newly graduating teachers. Both these factors in turn lower the status of the teaching profession, which discourages new entrants into the profession. All of this opens the door to increased privatization as those who can afford better look to the private system.

One need only look to the US to see these factors at work. Class sizes in the US go up above 40 in some jurisdictions. In many schools, teachers stay an average of one year. Teachers are demoralized. Wages are so low in some states one wonders why anyone would accept the responsibility or stress for such a low level of pay. Schools are over crowded, and children with special needs receive inadequate services. Parents with money increasingly send their children to private school.

This is precisely the outcome the Liberal government has been hoping for in BC, and after twelve years, it is starting to work. Parents with money are indeed leaving the public system.

A recent article in the Tyee explained well why teachers should not return to school before we have a fair deal. We also need to prepare ourselves to stay out as long as it takes for a deal that not only treats us fairly, but protects and reinstates class sizes.

This is the key to protecting public education. And we will need parents, students and workers supporting us in this goal to make it happen. But history has shown that when we are united together, we can be successful. I have no doubt that if we hold the line, we can be successful this time too.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Ranking & Sorting - An Essential Service

What is schooling for? In the midst of a teacher strike that is now entering its second week, the BC Labour Relations Board provided an answer - to rank and sort students. Upon application from the BC government, they declared that providing Grade 12 student marks was an essential service, and on Friday afternoon, that reviewing Grade 10 and 11 marks provided by school administrators was an essential service. Also essential is the provision of provincial exams, which students wrote last week behind teacher picket lines.

I guess we already knew that time in the classroom learning was not paramount. Many Districts across BC have shortened the school year by a week or longer to address chronic budget shortfalls. Some have even adopted a four day week. So it was already evident that time involved in learning activities with teachers can be jettisoned - if it saves money. No surprise then that the government appears to have very little interest in ending the strike and re-opening schools before the end of June.

We also knew that somehow the BC government thinks that limiting the constitutional right to strike should expand far beyond genuinely life threatening situations. It was all the way back in 2001 that the Essential Services legislation made the provision of education "essential". But what is increasingly clear is that was is  "essential" for government has nothing to do with educating. What is "essential" is that lists of marks are available to rank and sort students - no matter what they had the opportunity to learn and no matter how inaccurate those rankings might be. And what is also essential to government is that essential services legislation continue to erode the right to strike.

The government lockout prevented teachers from planning and marking. For the last several weeks of school, assignments were abridged, trips were cancelled, and learning activities cut short. Teachers simply could not continue to teach in the manner they do under the terms of the lockout and the severe restrictions on the working day. In my district, six out of the seven secondary schools also cancelled final course tests. In my daughter's school, the decision was made by the school administration and announced on the PA system before teachers even knew. In other words, the final month of school, which is about 20% of second semester courses, was shortened. And grading and assessment was altered - in many cases without the teacher even having any control over it.

Many teachers forced to submit Grade 12 marks on Friday did the only thing they think is ethical and honest in the circumstances - they assigned an "In Progress" mark. They acknowledged that the assessment of student work is not in relation to all the learning required in the course. They did what is a fair and accurate representation of student outcomes given the lockout's impact. One teacher I know even went further, providing a range of potential outcomes each student might achieve if they had the opportunity to actually complete the course, including final assessments.

Next week teachers will be asked to "review" a mark provided by an administrator. I don't know where these marks are going to come from. Perhaps they will be term marks from term one and will not reflect any student work completed since April. Perhaps they will come from some other magical place. What I do know is that administrators have not taught these students and have no mechanism to provide a genuine professional opinion about the level of student achievement in relation to the learning outcomes of the course. So why are they putting marks into the system? I guess because they have been ordered to do so.

At the end of the day, administrators will place a grade on every grade 10, 11 and 12 student's transcript. That grade will in many cases not reflect the student's abilities relative to the full course curriculum. But it will provide some data for someone else to make a judgement about that student. And this is ultimately what these grades are for - to rank and sort students. And apparently this is essential.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Can we afford smaller classes? Absolutely.

Education Minister Fassbender seems to have backed off his stance that class sizes don't matter. Not surprisingly, it was one of the first concerns raised at the annual general meeting of the BC Confederation of Parent Advisory Council's Q & A discussion:

Education Minister Peter Fassbender spoke to conference delegates Friday morning and was later peppered with questions, starting with this one: “How does class size not matter?”

Parents also wanted to know what his government is doing to help with complex classes, how it will protect schools threatened with permanent closure, whether the labour dispute will upset graduation activities and final exams and whether negotiations will continue throughout the summer.

There were no surprises in his answers: Class size is important up to a point, but not as important as class composition and teacher quality, given limited tax dollars, he said. Government has provided additional dollars to help with class composition challenges but it’s an issue that needs more attention, after a contract is signed, he added.*

So his back up answer? We can't afford it. And another old standby...class composition matters more. (I don't deal with teacher quality - another red herring, but read my thoughts on it here.)

Class size and class composition are inextricably linked. When the portion of the student population with identified special needs is high, the only way to create educationally sound classes is by having smaller classes. So if, for example, what is reasonable for a typical classroom is three students with special needs (the guidelines that used to be in legislation with Bill 33), but there are 8 students with special needs in Grade 5 out of 50 students, the only way to configure classes is to have three smaller classes rather than two larger ones. I'm not sure what other solution Fassbender could be referring to for class composition, unless he means segregation.

So can we afford smaller classes? British Columbians both can afford it and are willing to pay for it. The best evidence comes from an excellent report prepared last year by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. They costed this specific question, and they asked British Columbians what they thought about it.

The first thing they point out is how much tax revenue we would have for public services if only the tax cuts implemented by the BC Liberals never took place:

If BC collected today the same amount in tax revenues as a share of the economy 
(GDP) as we did in 2000, we would have $3.5 billion more in public funds this year 
alone. Meaning, no deficit, and the ability to invest in enhanced or even new public 

But they go on to look at class size and composition in particular, and what it would take to fund this with new, progressive income tax brackets for high income earners:

Two new brackets at the top: 18% 
on income $150,000–$200,000; and 
21% on income over $200,000

(would generate) $700 million

(which could pay for) 2,000 units of new social housing per year plus restore 
K–12 class sizes, composition, and specialist teacher 
staffing to levels that prevailed five years ago

Or alternatively:

Increase the current top (5th) bracket rate 
to 17%, and add two new upper income 
brackets: 20% on income $150,000–$200,000, 
and 22% on income over $200,000 

(would generate) $930 million

(which could pay for) Welfare benefit increases, a major funding increase to 
the Ministry of Children and Family Development, plus 
restore K–12 class sizes, composition, and specialist 
teacher staffing to levels that prevailed five years ago

The CCPA backed up these policy proposals with polling to see what British Columbians think about increasing taxes on the wealthy and corporations, or even themselves, in order to spend on public services. Here is what they found:

The overwhelming majority of British Columbians (90%) think there should be income tax increases for those at the top. As to where those higher taxes should kick in, a clear majority (57%) says at $100,000 per year of income. A majority (67%) also think major corporations are asked to pay less tax than they should.


Of course it’s easy to say someone else should pay more taxes. That’s why it comes as a further surprise to discover the openness British Columbians show when it comes to potential tax increases for themselves. When initially asked a general question about their own level of taxation, most people feel they pay too much – no surprise given the cost of living challenges many wrestle with. But, when taxes are linked to concrete policies that can reduce inequality and improve our quality of life, the story changes.

Respondents were asked if they would consider paying a slightly higher share of their own income to provincial income tax (for most people representing a few hundred dollars per year) in order to help bring about 11 different policy changes. The changes included things like providing more access to home and community based health care for seniors, increasing welfare benefit rates, creating a $10 per day child care program, protecting BC’s forests and endangered species, or reducing class sizes in K-12 education.

The results are striking: 68% say they are willing to pay a higher share of their income in order to help bring about 4 or more of the 11 policies. And once again, this held true for majorities regardless of which political party people intended to vote for in the next provincial election. 

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Why I'm on the picket line

I will never forget my first days teaching in a public school in British Columbia. It was 2004, and I had just left a job at a small private girl’s school to work in a large public high school. I went from class sizes of about 18 to class sizes of over 30. From a school where the adult to student ratio was one to eight, to a school where sometimes I wondered where the adults were. From quiet to loud, spacious to cramped, clean to messy, orderly to chaotic, easy to hard. That’s how my job changed.

I left for philosophical reasons – I believe in public schools and had always wanted to teach in the public system. I took some risk leaving my private school position, which was almost full time, unionized with decent pay and benefits, and where my classes never exceeded about 22 students and many were in the 15 – 18 range. I left to join the on-call list in a public district and was lucky enough to land a half time contract after six months.

I had entered a post-degree teaching program in the fall of 2001. “Jobs galore” was the message at our first all-student plenary session. But it wasn't five short months after when the government introduced Bills 27 and 28 and I was standing on the lawn of the legislature with my future colleagues decrying the stripping of class size limits from collective agreements. And by the time I finished in 2003, our local public District was not hiring. So I reluctantly took a position in the private system.

Looking back at that dream job sometimes I wonder why I let my principles get the best of me. I had my own classroom - a computer lab. I had a full time technical support worker assisting me when I needed. Spring break was two weeks and Christmas break was three. And I had lots of fun on the fall “out trip” when I was paid to escort the students through the sites of Victoria. “Classroom management” was a distant memory from a course I had taken. My students were well behaved, engaged, and motivated. I did not have a single student requiring adaptation for an Individual Education Plan, and my English as Second Language students all received tutoring, assistance and regular ESL classes. That was not something I had to worry about. I had the luxury of devoting all of my non-teaching time to lesson preparation, learning new ideas and teaching techniques that I could introduce to my students, and careful assessment of student work.

The contrast with my first public school position could not have been more stark. There were crowded hallways, constant disruption in class, challenging behaviours, and many students behind grade level with learning difficulties. I recall walking down the main hallway, where students hang out and eat their lunch, and being taken aback by the crowded space, and most noticeably - the total and complete lack of adults.

At the private school, there was an adult to student ratio of one to eight. This meant there was never a time, in my recollection, that any public space had fewer than two adults in it. The public high school was the opposite. Crowded hallways were often devoid of any adult presence. It was not two years into my position there that I encountered, in the main entryway to the school, four students engaged in a physical fight surrounded by a group of about 100 of their peers. As I descended into the school lobby from the upper stairwell I looked around and could see not a single other adult. It was only good fortune that three of the four students fighting knew me and so I felt confident to intervene. Otherwise, I would have been scared.

There was a lot of bad behaviour in the hallways at break time - homophobic put downs, inconsiderate remarks, throwing garbage on the floor. But one of the things I learned very quickly is that if I stopped to intervene every time I encountered an incident, I would never make it to the lunchroom to eat. And so I, like many other worn out and harried teachers, intervened when it was essential but learned to let go for the student throwing the gum wrapper on the floor. After a time, you get acclimatized and it all starts to feel normal.

Inside the classroom, the changes were different but just as palpable. All of a sudden, at least a third of my attention was always needed to monitor student behaviour. Of my daily utterances to students, many were now in the “sit down”, “please be quiet”, “I need your attention” variety. There was a seismic shift in my own mental capacity from focusing on student needs to focusing on student behaviours. My after class hours were consumed with meeting students to provide individual help, seemingly endless stacks of marking, and trying to figure out how to teach the student with elementary level reading skills in my Grade 9 class, or the student who was barely there and traumatized by a family death, or the student with mild intellectual disability who required a whole different curriculum to meet their needs. Precious time was left for learning new technologies, revamping my lessons, or planning field trips. With 210 students on my roster per year, that just wasn't possible.

Few with any experience in our school system would dispute the benefits of smaller classes and with ensuring that each class has a manageable number and range of special needs. The simple reality is that as class sizes grow, adult attention per student diminishes, and student behaviours are harder to manage. Some point to the times several decades ago when class sizes were forty or even fifty students. Those were also the times of the strap and when students with disabilities were housed in segregated facilities. Is that where we want to go?

If we want a caring, nurturing, safe environment in schools, we need adequate adult supervision. If we want teachers able to devote their time to teaching and learning activities, we can’t overwhelm them with over sized classes. Again, the math is simple. If we double the size of an English 12 class, the teacher will need to halve the number of essays each student writes for feedback because there are only so many hours in the weekend to do the marking. In an eighty minute math class, after homework take-up and the daily lesson, there is only 30 minutes left - that is one minute per child. No wonder parents who can afford it hire tutors.

A quick comparison of private and public school class sizes show striking differences. Here is the data for my home community of Victoria:

Private schools:

Glenlyon Norfork: 18 - 20
St. Margaret's School: 14 - 20
St. Michael's University School: 18 - 20
Queen Margaret's School: 18
Shawnigan Lake School: 14 -15

Public schools - averages of:

18 - Kindergarten
21 - Primary Grades
26 - Intermediate
27 - Secondary

Pretty much any advertisement for any private school will indicate “small class sizes”.

But class size isn't the only difference. Last summer I took my daughter to a summer camp at St. Michael’s University School. It doesn't have a building, it has a campus. The beautiful landscaped gardens included hanging flower baskets. The music room was stocked with instruments and designed for it’s purpose. The grounds included a nice outdoor amphitheatre.

I believe I deserve a raise, but just like other teachers, that isn't the main reason I voted yes to strike. A society is measured by how it treats everyone. This includes the poor, the disenfranchised, the ordinary. In British Columbia, these children get overcrowded and underfunded. The children who need it the most - the hungry, the hurt, the struggling ones - get the least. In contrast, the one's whose parents can pay get better.

The “public” in public school does not just mean providing a building with some tired teachers to deliver a curriculum measured on some standardized tests. A good public school system will provide high quality opportunities to every single child. While our public schools have many wonderful programs and many dedicated teachers, the sad truth is that there are also overcrowded classrooms, children falling behind, and a workforce exhausted from trying to fill in the gaps.

The class size provisions that were illegally removed in 2002 are only a fraction of what is needed to move towards a genuinely high quality public education system. But they are a necessary start. I hope we stay on the picket line long enough to win them back, and I hope parents and citizens who want the best for every child join us in that struggle.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

BC Teachers' Wage & Class size proposals: Myths & Realities

I wrote the original version of this post in January 2012, during our last contract negotiations. Since then, teachers have had two more years of zero increases (2012, 2013). Here is an updated version - more relevant than ever.

BC teachers are in contract negotiations asking for a fair deal. What do we mean by fair exactly? 

Teachers are focused on two priorities: class size/composition, and salary.

As far as class size, we want only what was taken in 2002. We want the government to go back to the class sizes in place at that time and restore the funding so Boards can achieve this. We want what the Supreme Court of British Columbia said is rightfully due to us and BCs students in January this year, but is now under appeal from the government.

Some in the media are suggesting we need to "compromise". While I accept that premise in respect of wages (as does the BCTF bargaining team), as far as class size goes, it really is unfair. Imagine if someone came and stole your house. You argue that you should get it back because it was stolen. You go to court and the court says you should get it back. Is the fair solution to give the thief half your house? This is what "compromise" means for class size.

With respect to salary, teachers want to "keep up" and "catch up". What do we mean by that? We want to keep up with inflation, and we want to catch up with Canadian teachers in other provinces. Teachers in BC now rank near the bottom in salaries across Canada, despite the fact that our cost of living is one of the highest and that BC weathered the recession better than most other provinces. BC has been out of recession since 2010 and is experiencing moderate growth.

The government wants teachers to take 6.5% over six years. The government claims that taxpayers cannot afford higher increases to public sector wages and that wages must remain flat because the government "can't afford it".

Do these arguments make sense? Are they justified? Or should teachers just accept the government offer? Here are my answers to these questions.

Myth #1: Teachers should not get much of a wage increase because the government can't afford it

Reality #1: There was no deficit when the Liberals took power in 2001. Through a series of income tax cuts and corporate tax cuts, the Liberals went from a surplus to a deficit. Yes, the recession of 2009 impacted government revenues. But not as much as tax cuts have. Moreover, the government has found plenty of money for spending when it feels the spending is a priority. There was money for the BC Place roof ($500 million). There was money for the Olympics (over $1 billion). There was money for smart meters ($900 million). There was money for new government network systems ($1.2 billion to Telus). There seems to be plenty of money for the CEO's of crown corporations like BC Ferries (David Hahn's pension value - over $10 million).

More recently, there was money for 18% pay increases to Christy Clark's top aides in government. The fact is that the government is using the deficit that it created as an excuse to take money away from public services and the people who provide them. The money is there. It is a matter of priorities.

It is simply unfair to make one group of workers pay for a deficit created by tax cuts to other people and corporations. Private sector workers are seeing increases. Other public sector workers are seeing increases  and notably have had increases in the last two years when teachers took zero.  Moreover how is it fair to make middle income earners pay for tax cuts that disproportionately benefited the wealthy and corporations? It just isn't.

Myth #2: Teachers should accept what other public sector workers have taken (follow the "pattern")

Reality #2: The government likes to compare us to two public sector unions - BCGEU and HEU. If they honestly calculated a "pattern" among all public sector workers, it would be clear there is great variation. Let's take BC nurses as an example. Here is a spreadsheet on the BC government web site showing nurses wage increases since 1974. While teachers have had zeros since our last increase of 2% on July 1, 2010, in the same time nurses have had 4% of increases after their 2010 bump of 4.2%. So since January 2010, nurses had a total of 8.2% while teachers had 2%. This is a pretty different "pattern". Similarly, while CUPE/BCGEU/HEU has taken a lower prospective salary deal, they are also coming off of two years with 2/2 or 2/1.5. So if they agree(d) to take something lower for the next four years, that has to be in the context of their last two years as well.

Collective bargaining allows both sides to make arguments about salary given the time and circumstances. This may differ across sectors. The government certainly doesn't insist on a "pattern" unless it wants to point to the lowest common denominator and insist that it is the only "pattern" around. 

And they never compare those of us doing front line jobs with the "pattern" in management and for MLAs. Let's not forget the massive pay hikes for MLAs in 2007 that reached the double digits - as high as 48%.

Myth #3: BC teachers already have high salaries

Reality #3: After five years of university training, BC teachers begin with a wage in the mid $40's, if they are full time. Many teachers only get part time work for the first 3-5 years of their career. It takes ten years of full time work to reach the maximum salary, which is about $75,000 for most teachers. BC teachers rank near the bottom in Canada compared to teachers in other provinces. A teacher at the top of the salary scale in BC earns on average $20,000 less than a comparably experienced teacher in Alberta and $15,000 less than one in Ontario. Yet BC has the highest cost of living and the highest housing prices in the country.

Myth #4: The numbers

Reality #4: The numbers explained (warning - math reading ahead!)

Teachers' last wage proposal (April 30) is for an across the board increase in each of the four years as follows: 3, 2.75, 2.5, 2.5. This adds up to 10.75% In addition, the proposal includes a "cost of living" adjustment based on a portion of the Cost Price Index rate for the previous twelve months. In the first year, it is .5 times the CPI, in the remaining four years .75 times the CPI. So if the CPI were 1% in year one, the cost of living adjustment would be .5%. If the CPI remained at 1% for all four years, the total COLA increases would be 3.25%. Add these together to get the BCTF number widely quoted in the media of 13.5%

The rationale for the teachers' wage proposal is to "catch up and keep up". The basic wage increases are the catch up portion. They are aimed at bringing teachers back to the middle of the pack in terms of teacher wages across Canada, phased in over four years. The cost of living adjustments are to ensure that the wage does not decline in "real dollars" due to inflation. Given that the proposal is for below the CPI, it is still possible the "catch up" would be reduced if there were strong inflationary pressures. In other words, if inflation is high, we would still be significantly behind our Canadian colleagues.

BCPSEA is using the figure 15.9% to describe the teachers' proposal (or in their loaded wording "demand"). I believe they are using 1.5% for their CPI estimates. But that still only brings us to a total of 14.875%. So perhaps they are applying some compounding to the numbers? I don't know. If they are, it is disingenuous, as no other figures (such as the notorious "pattern") are compounded. But regardless, which CPI estimate is reasonable?

The CPI average for the year in April 2014 was indeed 1.5%. This is probably the source of BCPSEA's number.

But the actual proposal indicates that the CPI number to be used is for the January - December period. Since the agreement would come into force as of the expiration of the previous agreement, the first application would be for the CPI for 2013. Since this is negative, there would be no COLA increase for the first year. In some respects, the CPI rates are hard to estimate...they vary quite a lot. But the average for the last five years was .94%. For the last ten the number is 1.43%. See the CPI rates here.

A reasonable thing to say is that if inflation averages that of the last five years, 13.5% is the better estimate. If inflation averages that of the last ten years, 14.875% is the better estimate. In neither case is 15.9% the right number. 

Moreover, if the 10.75% "catch up" brings us back somewhere to the "middle of the pack" of teacher salaries across Canada, the roughly 3 - 5% cost of living adjustment will still be behind what those other salaries will be increasing, looking at recent agreements like Saskatchewan, where they will go up 7.3% in the same time period.

Finally, if we take BCPSEA's CPI estimate together with their offer of 6.5% over six years, we see that they are offering a wage cut. At that estimate, just inflation would be 9%.

Myth #5: Teachers are asking for too much

Reality #5: Teachers want to keep up with inflation. Teachers want to catch up with their colleagues in other provinces. Teachers have taken seven years of zero increases since 1998 (in 1998, 1999, 2004, 2005, 2011, 2012, 2013). This leaves us far behind, and is why we are ranked near the bottom across Canada for teacher salaries. Teachers traded salary for smaller class sizes and those class size provisions were later eliminated. It is perfectly reasonable to ask for cost of living increases and wage adjustments to catch up with our Canadian colleagues. Teachers have seen their net pay go down in both real and inflationary terms. Like other workers, we are paying more for MSP premiums, more for CPP and EI, more for gas and food, and taking home less. In addition, teachers in the lower mainland, in particular, face some of the highest costs of anywhere in Canada.

Myth #6: Class size and composition will cost $1 billion

Reality #6: The best estimate for the cost of class size provisions to be returned to the collective agreement comes from government itself in it's submission to the courts. That estimate is $275 million (see para 335 for Treasury Board costing of savings introduced by eliminating class sizes), in 2002 dollars. So perhaps in the order of $350 million today. Certainly not $1 billion. I haven't seen any justification of this number by the government.