Teachers take to the streets of Salmon Arm

B.C.’s teachers are ready to escalate job action in response to the provincial government’s intent to legislate an imposed contract. The B.C. Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) has received approval from the B.C. Labour Relations Board to go on strike for up to three days. The BCTF is preparing to vote on the strike action. The result should be known Thursday.

Teachers in the Okanagan-Shuswap were out on the streets Monday afternoon for a “day of action,” protesting Education Minister George Abbott’s decision to proceed with legislation that would bring an end to the yearlong teachers contract negotiations.

“He’s showing poor direction – we’re standing up for the bigger picture. This is about the erosion of democracy,” commented Salmon Arm Secondary theatre instructor Cathy Hay.

“I’ve been teaching for 27 years and this makes me sick. I just want to teach,” said physical education instructor Tricia Martin.

Abbott announced Friday that he would be directing staff to prepare a bill or bills that would bring about a “resolution” to the collective bargaining dispute between the BCTF, the BC Public School Employers’ Association (BCPSEA) and the province. On Tuesday, Abbott tabled legislation that would forbid any strike action.

“From my perspective, it is unacceptable that this situation continue,” Abbott said in a press conference Friday. “The parties have been at the table now for one year, there have been 78 face-to-face bargaining sessions and the parties remain as far apart today… as they were one year ago, and I am not prepared to see this go on very much longer.”

The BCTF responded with demands for a mediated settlement, to which the BCPSEA has since agreed.

“Our employer, BCPSEA, agreed to mediation on Friday, so I’m concerned that the minister is a little bit ahead of himself as far as legislation,” said North Okanagan Shuswap Teachers’ Association president Lynda Bennett. “We feel it would be respectful if he put legislation on the side so that we could give mediation a try.”

Abbott dismissed the notion of using a mediator to settle the monetary issues. He said it is not an appropriate assignment for a mediator to attempt to bridge the $2 billion gulf between the two parties. Abbott was agreeable to a mediator being used for other issues, however, such as class size and composition.

The education minister’s announcement Friday followed the release of a report on the status of collective bargaining between the teachers’ federation and the BCPSEA by assistant deputy minister of industrial relations Trevor Hughes. The report concludes that it is unlikely a negotiated agreement could be achieved, with wages being the key sticking point.

Abbott said he was very concerned with how the absence of report cards and of collaborative meetings between teachers and administration have left some children vulnerable, and special needs students at an increased risk.

School District #83 District Parents Advisory Council (DPAC) president Jennifer Cook says there are indeed students who have been impacted by the teachers’ job action who will be repeating some grades as a result. But she notes the overall impact varies from school to school. At some, she says, it’s been business as usual, while at others, she says she’s heard from parents who are hearing more now from teachers than they did in the past. Part of the issue, she says, is parents maybe not realizing they can still communicate with teachers.

“A lot of parents think, with this job action going on I can’t speak to my teacher, and that’s not the case. Teachers are encouraging parents to come to them more and get more information,” says Cook.

What has had an impact on students, says Cook, has been the elimination of recess, and the collaboration between teachers and administrative staff that might have kept some students from falling through the cracks. School District #83 Superintendent Dave Witt has seen this as well.

“We’re starting to see some signs of concern in terms of parents losing touch with their student’s progress, especially at the secondary level, so there have been areas of concern,” says Witt. “I know principals and vice-principals have really missed being able to consult with teachers as a group on a variety of school direction issues. So those pieces have all had their impact.”

Witt says he would welcome an end to the teachers’ job action, but that it’s unfortunate it will not be through a negotiated collective agreement.

While Abbott says the province will not budge on its net-zero mandate, the B.C. government is required to come up with a solution to the issue of class size and composition, which Bennett says is the number-one issue for teachers.

In April 2011, the B.C. Supreme Court ruled that provincial legislation limiting the right of teachers to negotiate class size and composition was unconstitutional. The court gave the government until April of this year to address the matter with new legislation.

What Bennett has seen so far hasn’t inspired confidence.

“I took the issue to George on Wednesday – a class of 30 that has 21 kids who have huge needs – and what (he) said was, that class is not acceptable,” says Bennett. “On other classes, he said the composition wasn’t fair. So I said to him, if you say that these aren’t acceptable and aren’t fair, what are you going to do about it? And he has no answer other than, if we fix teachers, if we make them better, that will address the problems.”


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