In the Canadian province of British Columbia, 42,000 teachers have been on strike since Friday 7 October, affecting 600,000 students. This courageous struggle has become the longest provincial shutdown of schools in the history of the province. This is despite government legislation which rules strike action by teachers illegal and a court ruling, during the strike, ordering the freezing of union funds to stop strike pay. Reports show public support growing, including from students, some of whom walked out of classes, in 2002, during the last round of bargaining,
In October 2005, the BC government extended, until June 2006, the terms of an expired contract with the province’s teachers, after the union started a work-to-rule campaign. The teachers walked out, defying the new contract. On October 9, a judge ruled the teachers were in contempt of court for violating what was essentially a back-to-work order.
The BC government have a $1.3billion (Canadian dollars) surplus – this shows there is no justification for education cuts and there is more than enough money to give the teachers a pay rise and to improve the education system.
“Teachers feel that they are being bullied by government who are imposing a contract by legislation—again—rather than engaging in any real negotiations,” says the British Colombia Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) website. It goes on to say, “The provincial government has refused repeated requests to meet the BCTF to discuss the very real concerns of teachers. They have communicated only in the form of legislation and expensive newspaper ads.
“To get the government’s attention, teachers started a very limited job action, stopping supervision and ending paperwork. This was all within the rules created by “essential services” legislation passed by government. All the actions taken were approved by the Labour Relations Board as within the law. However, even this mild job action was, in effect, declared illegal by imposing a contract—another case of teachers feeling bullied.”
The employers (BC Public Employers’ Association - BCPSEA) and the government are trying to freeze teachers pay for at least another year. As well as the issue of pay, and being told they are not allowed to strike legally, many different issues have become part of the dispute. Teachers are fed up with cuts and a detoriation of classroom conditions under the ruling Liberal government in BC, which is headed by Gordon Campbell.
Some of the main issues they are striking about concern continuing cuts in staff and services, such as counsellors, teacher-librarians, learning assistance teachers, and also growing class sizes.
A few days after the strike started, the British Columbia Supreme Court found the BC teachers’ association in “contempt of court” for defying the legislation which declares that education is an essential service thereby removing the teacher’s right to strike. The court froze union funds, which stopped strike pay. In defiance of this, other unions donated money to the striking teachers to help them continue their action.
Unions call solidarity demo and walkouts
In an escalation of the action, on Monday 17 October, the British Columbia Federation of Labour (BCFED) called a demonstration and rally in Victoria, protesting Bill 12 (teachers’ collective agreement act). Many unionised workers were expected to take part. It is likely workers throughout British Columbia (BC) will take action. The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) said this is only the beginning of their action. On Tuesday, 18 October, all CUPE union members in the northern part of British Columbia are expected to walk away from their jobs as a form of protest.
There is huge potential for this action to grow and to involve other workers, which would be a huge blow to the governments’ planned cutbacks and would also show their anti-strike laws are useless in the face of determined mass action by workers.
The growing confidence of workers to defy these laws and to continue the fight for better public services could have a huge effect on the confidence of workers faced with similar anti-union laws. It would also have a big impact on workers defending public services outside of Canada.
This dispute has already shown that that making anti-union laws in courts cannot stop workers taking strike action. The teachers and workers of BC, and Canada, need maximum support from trade unionists and socialists internationally to defeat the government and improve conditions for workers.
For more information, visit:
British Columbia Teachers’ Federation www.bctf.bc.ca contact details on site
British Columbia Federation of Labour www.bcfed.com
Canadian Public Employees Union www.cupe.ca and http://www.cupe.ca/www/media/CUPE_workers_off_the