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General · 5th April 2012
Anne Davies
If you did something harmful in a very public way and the matter went to court and you were found to have behaved illegally, would you expect to be able to repeat your action and get away with it the second time? The B.C. Liberals think they can.

Last year, I wrote a column about the Liberals and their strange mania for picking fights with teachers. In that column, I re-visited some history that is important to an understanding of this dispute. In a nutshell, in 1998 the teachers voted to accept a collective agreement in which they sacrificed wage and benefit improvements in order to improve students’ learning conditions. They wanted the available funding to go to better staffing for learning specialist teachers through staffing formulas built into collective agreements as well as guarantees of class size and class composition standards. This was an important achievement for kids in this province, as well as for teachers, as it improved their working conditions, thus increasing their effectiveness in the classroom.

To show her appreciation, Christy Clark, as Minister of Education, changed the law in 2002 and introduced Bills 27 and 28, stripping the teachers’ collective agreement of class size and student support provisions. Further changes to the law meant these items could never be negotiated in the future. The B.C. Teachers’ Federation, representing B.C.’s public school teachers, took the B.C. government to court. It turned out the government was wrong. The reason? Collective bargaining rights are guaranteed to Canadians through the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Madame Justice Susan Griffin quoted a decision of the Supreme Court of Canada that states: “recognition of the right to collectively bargain as part of the freedom to associate ‘reaffirms the values of dignity, personal autonomy, equality and democracy that are inherent in the Charter.’”

Furthermore, Madame Justice Griffin said, “The legislation undoubtedly was seen by teachers as evidence that the government did not respect them to be valued contributors to the education system, having excluded them from any freedom to associate to influence their working conditions. This was a seriously deleterious effect of the legislation, one adversely disproportionate to any salutary effects revealed by the evidence.”

Fast forward to March 15 of this year and the passage of Bill 22, The Education Improvement Act. Incredibly, Bill 22 repeals the language that Madame Justice Griffin found to be unconstitutional and then legislates it back into effect. Rather than accepting the court’s decision and recognizing that class size and composition provisions are restored, it reintroduces the contract-stripping language, word for word.

As a further flouting of the Griffin judgement, Bill 22 eliminates the teachers’ Charter-protected right to free collective bargaining and imposes a so-called “mediation” in which the government chooses the mediator and mandates that the next collective agreement must include the employer’s demands for concessions on seniority, layoff and recall, evaluation and dismissal, and teachers’ autonomy on professional development. And, of course, there can be no improvement to wages or benefits or anything else that has a cost.

And if the teachers want to fight back? Their right to strike has been legislated away for the next 6 months. And if they decide to strike anyway, they will face daily fines of $1.3 million for the union, $2500 for union officers and representatives, and $475 for individual union members. That could add up to more than $21 million daily.

Besides making a mockery of the B.C. Supreme Court decision on Bills 27 and 28, Bill 22 is very bad for kids. Though Christy Clark, George Abbott and company like to frame this dispute as reasonable government responding to greedy teachers, the fact is that the teachers have been looking out for the best interests of our kids and Bill 22 takes away their ability to do that anymore while making working and learning conditions even worse.

With Bill 22, there will be no limits on the number of students with special needs in a class. As the parent of children with special needs, I find this provision especially troubling. One of my children was the quiet kind, the kind who would sit quietly in the back of the class and never draw attention to himself despite a severe learning disability that meant he couldn’t keep up with his class without lots of specialized help. Today he is a proud tradesperson with a good income, thanks to all those learning specialist teachers and education assistants who were able to take the time to support his learning. I’m told that, if he was in school today, he would not receive the same help due to the large numbers of special needs kids in overcrowded classrooms.

The new legislation places no limits on the numbers of students in Grades 4 to 12 classes. Administrators no longer have to consult with teachers about class sizes or composition. Parent involvement in the organization of classes is eliminated by repealing the requirement that the principal consult with parent councils about class size at the beginning of the school year. Superintendents no longer have to provide a report to school trustees in a public meeting about class sizes in the district.

The general idea of the labour movement is that everyone, whether or not they belong to a union, should be lifted up – not knocked down and stripped of hard-won rights in order to deflect attention from the tax cuts that have been awarded to the big contributors to the B.C. Liberal party.

There is something particularly ugly about the spectacle of a government making a scapegoat of a respected group of community members. More and more often, public sector workers in general are being criticized in a very personal way (greedy, lazy) for having decent jobs, for having pensions, and for having some degree of control, bargained collectively, over their working conditions.

Bill 22 represents a watershed moment in this province’s history. Either we support our teachers in defending decent education for our kids, while defending the right to collective bargaining, or we accept a harsh new reality that ultimately fails our children, both as students and as tomorrow’s workers.