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.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

BC Teachers: Liability & the Lockout

The war of words between the BCTF and the BC Government, heated up this week as the government denied that their lockout prevented teachers from organizing and participating in extra-curricular events and blamed the BCTF for warning its members of potential liability.

The Victoria Times Colonist reported this morning:

Education Minister Peter Fassbender said he was against any disruption of extracurricular and volunteer opportunities.
“I think that’s a shame,” he said. “As I said at the beginning, I am concerned because this is now affecting students and their parents and the communities. Teachers have a choice to participate in extracurricular activities as they have previously.”
While the union said teachers should wait until there is confirmation from WorkSafe B.C. that they are on solid ground with extracurricular activity during the partial lockout, Fassbender said WorkSafe B.C. coverage for teachers will not be compromised.
“Any teacher that is at any activity that is sanctioned by a school district is absolutely covered by WorkSafe. There is no question of that."
( - See more at:

What are the facts we know?

The first claim, that teachers are covered by WCB (WorksafeBC), is almost certainly false. WCB has been issuing orders denying WCB coverage to teachers involved in extra-curricular activities for some time now. See, for example, this WCAT (the appeal body of the WCB) decision.

In it, the adjudicator determines that coverage is not provided because the activity was not "work" for the following reasons:

"...the worker was injured outside normal working hours; he was not 
involved in an activity that was part of his job; he was not instructed or otherwise 
directed by the employer to carry out the activity; the activity was not supervised by a 
representative of the employer having supervisory authority; and fitness was not a job 
requirement. Those factors are more critical to an assessment of whether the soccer 
game was part of the worker’s employment, and whether the injury arose out and in the 
course of employment. "

In the current circumstances, it is likely that most extra-curricular activities teachers have planned would take place in similar conditions. They are not activities in which the teacher is "directed" by the employer because they are voluntary.

So if a teacher isn't covered by WCB, then what? In the normal course of events, the teacher would probably be covered by the School District liability insurance. All BC School Districts are "self insured" with the government insurance program, called the School Protection Program. This provides insurance similar to your home insurance - for injuries, for example. It also provides legal support when a School District, or their employees in the course of their work, are sued.

The SPP has an "Administrator's Manual" on its web site. The Manual specifically advises that:

This handbook should not be used as more than a general introduction to 
coverage available under SPP. It is not legal advice and does not modify 
actual coverage wordings. Not all activities or losses are covered. 

Nevertheless, even if we ignore this caveat (as one might in the normal course of things), there is an additional concern. The Manual indicates that coverage is not provided for "illegal acts".

Why is this a problem? Well, the letter from Marchbank very clearly directs teachers that they are locked out for certain specified hours. Specifically, teachers are: "directed not to attend their workplace earlier than 45 minutes before the commencement of their instructional time or later than 45 minutes after the end of their instructional time". This means that a teacher who is on School District property during these times may be trespassing.

The application of the tort of trespass has been successfully used to prevent workers from picketing on employer property. Whether it can or would be used by an insurance agent in respect of a damages claim is any one's guess.

Here's what I do know. WCB makes it's own decisions. It has issued no information. Neither Fassbender, nor a Superintendent, nor BCPSEA can "assure" teachers they are covered under WCB and the evidence based on previous decisions suggest they are not.

No one knows the possible outcome of a damages claim involving the SPP under a partial lockout. Likely not even an SPP official could provide an answer - it would end up at the courts.

The BCTF is obligated to provide advice that respects the safety and security of its members. Their advice to warn members of potential liability risks seems perfectly reasonable to me. Given that a single injury claim can be financially debilitating for an individual, I wouldn't take the risk myself.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

When is a lockout not a lockout?

On May 21st, the bargaining agent for the BC Government, BCPSEA, issued a "lockout" notice to the BC teachers' union, the BCTF. It claimed to be notification of a "partial" lockout. Amidst the confusion, what can we say about the letter, the lockout status, the intent of government, and the myriad questions the letter has raised?

A lockout is permitted under the BC Labour Relations Code once a contract terminates and the two parties have reached impasse at bargaining. A lockout also requires a vote on the employer side because BCPSEA represents multiple employers (School Boards). Here are the relevant clauses:

61 (1) If 2 or more employers are engaged in the same dispute with their employees, a person must not declare or authorize a lockout and an employer must not lock out his or her employees until a vote as to whether to lock out has been taken by all the employers in accordance with the regulations, and a majority of those employers who vote have voted for a lockout.
Voting requirements
39  (1) All voting directed by the board or by the minister under this Code and other votes held by a trade union or employers' organization of their respective members on a question of whether to strike or lock out, or whether to accept or ratify a proposed collective agreement, must be by secret ballot cast in such a manner that the person expressing a choice cannot be identified with the choice expressed.

(2) The results of a vote referred to in subsection (1), including the number of ballots cast and the number of votes for, against or spoiled, must be made available to both
(a) the members, and
(b) the trade union and employer affected.
(3) A vote referred to in subsection (1) must be conducted in accordance with the regulations.
(4) If the board in its discretion directs that they may vote, the following persons are eligible to vote in a representation vote:
(a) persons who at the time an application for certification was received by the board were not employees in the proposed unit but are employees in the unit at the time of the vote;
(b) persons who at the time an application for decertification was received by the board were employees in the unit, but are not employees in the unit at the time of the vote.

Our local union president asked our Board Chair if a vote had been taken and how our Trustees voted. She responded that no vote took place at the May 7th South Island Regional BCPSEA meeting. Did a vote take place some other time in some other location? Did BCPSEA inform the BCTF of such a vote, including the number of ballots case and number of votes for, against and spoiled? Not to my knowledge.

Putting this issue aside, the next questions I have is, what exactly am I being locked out of? The letter gives direction that limit working hours and specifically prohibit work done at lunch time and recess, and before 45 minutes prior to instructional time and after 45 beyond instructional time. The letter argues that given that a teachers' day is 9.1 hours for the purposes of Employment Insurance, this constitutes a shortening of our working day. The letter also, however, exempts this restriction for all voluntary activities. Finally, it produces a short list of occasional activities that are not to be done, including professional development.

If one agrees with the 9.1 hour day assumption, a teacher's day is now shortened to 7 hours (5 1/2 hours of instructional time plus the 45 minutes before and after). I, along with most teachers, do not have any of the listed activities scheduled next week, such as an in-service training or professional development activity.

So the great looming question then is, what work are teachers not supposed to do?

The basic paid components of a teacher's job are planning, instructing, marking/assessing/providing feedback, and reporting. Since instructional time is intact, the only logical conclusion is that we will be unable to perform some of these other tasks in the time allowed. And what is the impact of not planning, assessing, providing feedback and reporting? A diminished educational program - precisely the thing the government says won't happen.

The last logical conundrum is this - if the reduced workday is the rationale for the wage roll back, exactly why were there two distinct wage roll back threats? 5% if we stop our rotating strikes, but 10% if we carry on. How is it that the government can on the one hand claim the wage roll back is for work not done, and at the same time say that the size of the wage roll back depends on our rotating strikes (for which we will automatically be docked a day's pay)?

What does shine through from the government's letter and commentary is the purpose of the lockout. They want teachers to do all our work but not get all our pay. They want a lockout without a lockout. Or as one teacher said it on twitter - it's Schrödinger's lockout (@JCraig_sd45).

Friday, May 23, 2014