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. 


  1. Victory is won not in miles but in inches. Win a little now, hold your ground, and later, win a little more.

    Louis L'Amour

  2. Astute and insightful, Tara. Thanks for this.

  3. So what besides staying on strike was going to be a solution.

    1. Stay on strike -- AND pursue other strategies that would have increased the social costs to the government and their backers, to the point where they're compelled to give in. In my opinion, the union executive pursued a strategy (i.e. negotiations) that basically guaranteed that this was the best possible outcome. At no point did the executive ever say, "Look, negotiations can only take us so far, and the government can just hold out until we give in. So we need to do other things." Instead, they thought, as far as we can tell, "Negotiations are the only way. The law is in our favour. And if we don't negotiate, the courts might punish us."

      There were many other things we could have done: first and foremost, by making this a political issue. Connect the attack on public schools to the attack on the entire public sphere -- in fact, to the attack on the well-being of the general population. Make it about class. Connect the increasing of public funding of "private" schools to growing and obscene wealth and income inequality, also at public expense. Talk about the lack of unionization at private schools. Talk about the $40 as a voucher system; talk about New Orleans. Connect the attack on K-12 to exploding post-secondary tuition and debt. Make community control of education a priority. Talk about Chicago, the school occupations, the deep and cooperative links between teachers and parents. And so on, and so on...

      Those kinds of things rarely ever happened at the executive level, but there were certainly discussed on the picket lines and within some locals. And I don't just mean to blame the executive; they could have decided to pursue other strategies, clearly, but at the end of the day, we only have ourselves to blame. We could have done so much more, myself included, and I'll never forget that.

      And yet, again, it bears repeating -- don't mourn, organize!

  4. Tara Thank-you for being the voice of the the NO Vote. I would print off your articles and take them to picket lines. Many rank and file teachers agree with you. I think had the BCTF stayed out week or two longer we could have provoked a real crisis for the government. Courage and a clear analysis of how to fight and win is what is missing from BCTF and BCFed.
    Thanks again.

    1. You're welcome! A healthy and democratic union needs to debate every decision and often rank and file members have a better sense of where to go than leadership. It's just a product of being on the ground and knowing you will be the one back in that over crowded classroom. I do believe we will at some point see a strong enough network of teachers to fight and win genuine gains.