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.