BC Teachers Ready for Another Round

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By Katie Hyslop, 21 Apr 2012, TheTyee.ca

Despite losses at Labour Relations, the BCTF lays out its action plan to continue battle until next spring

Teachers voted yesterday to withdraw from extracurriculars, but were ordered to issue report cards.

Another chapter was added to the ongoing drama between the B.C. government and the BC Teachers’ Federation yesterday, when teachers voted in favour of withdrawing from extracurricular activities in protest of Bill 22, but the BC Labour Relations Board (LRB) ruled teachers must issue retroactive report cards.

With the end of the school year just two months away, and the cooling-off period predicted by many — teachers included — to end in a legislated agreement, you could be forgiven for assuming (or hoping) the battle between teachers and government will soon be over.6

But the teachers’ union vows it won’t be laying down arms any time soon, and have already laid out the groundwork for a year-long campaign in favour of public education, and against the current government, to last at least until the provincial election next spring and beyond.

Teachers vote to leave extracurriculars

Almost three-quarters of members of the BC Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) cast their vote for the BCTF Action Plan this past week, which included the decision to withdraw from extracurricular activities, as well as the possibility of holding a future vote on a province-wide walkout before the end of the year. The vote passed with 73 per cent in favour.

BCTF President Susan Lambert says withdrawal from extracurricular activities is the only daily protest action teachers can take under Bill 22: The Education Improvement Act, which subjects individual teachers, union officials, and the union as a whole to fines for every day of a walkout strike. Withdrawal from extracurricular activities will begin Monday, April 23 and last until the end of June, but Lambert says there are no current plans for a walkout vote.

“It’s not something we do lightly, it’s a horrible, horrible decision to make. We love extracurricular activities, that’s where you find the joy and passion in teaching, that’s where you find mutual joy,” Lambert told media during a press conference yesterday morning.

Extracurricular activities, which include everything from sports teams to gay-straight youth alliances to high school graduation ceremonies that happen outside of school hours are voluntary for teachers. Lambert says these activities have not been banned, and parents and administrators are free and welcome to step into teachers’ places to keep them running.

But she acknowledges the union has no power to stop teachers from participating in extracurriculars if they want to.

“There’s an expectation that individuals will comply with the collective decision,” she says. “The federation itself doesn’t generally take any action, we depend on moral suasion.”

Teachers must issue report cards: LRB

Almost immediately following Lambert’s press conference, however, the BC Labour Relations Board came down with its ruling on retroactive report cards, agreeing with the government that teachers had to produce them by April 27.

This is the second ruling this week by the LRB to dismiss a complaint brought by the teachers. On April 18, the LRB ruled teachers must continue with the mediation process while the board reviews the union’s request to remove government-appointed mediator Charles Jago, whom the union claims is biased towards the government.

Education Minister George Abbott met with reporters soon after yesterday’s ruling, saying he was pleased with the decision.

“We believe it’s very important for 520,000 public school students and their parents that they have the opportunity to know how their child is doing in school,” he says.

“We’re very appreciative that many teachers, not all, but many teachers have reached out to parents and provided an opportunity for parents to understand how their kids are doing. But not every parent is benefitting from that, and that is why it’s so very important to have report cards.”

As for the teachers’ vote, Abbott expressed concern for teachers who choose not to comply with the union’s decision.

“What we would like to see is teachers having the opportunity as anyone else who chooses to volunteer their time without any intimidation or what was kindly referred to as ‘moral suasion’ that might get in the way,” Abbott says, referencing Lambert’s comments.

“We’ve seen withdrawal of extracurricular before. It had invariably cause enormous tensions in classrooms before and particularly in staff rooms, and I hope that the (BCTF) will respect the right of every teacher to make their own decisions.”

The Vancouver Sun’s Report Card blog recently published two emails showing the friction between teachers on opposing sides of the argument, where one teacher told fellow educators that in the event of an illegal teacher walkout, any teacher who crossed a picket line was “a real sociopath,” and “evil,” and went on to promise that “I would keep my children away from you, cause you’re evil. And I’ll shout at you.”

Third LRB decision due any day

But as the union sees it, the teachers’ vote and Thursday’s byelection wins for the B.C. New Democratic Party is a sign, at least in part, that the public has a distaste for government’s handling of the dispute thus far.

“I expect that this minister of education and the premier will look at what effect their policies have had on their public popularity,” says Lambert.

Abbott disagrees, saying polling has shown the public is split 50-50 on the issue.

“I think she’s gilding the lily there, frankly. When I look at the byelection results, clearly dissatisfaction with things like the extraordinarily clumsy way we did the HST would be much more of an issue than the schools issue. I just don’t believe for a moment that was the deciding or pivotal issue in terms of the byelection outcomes,” he says.

The two also traded barbs between reporters, with Lambert saying Abbott is sounding “increasingly desperate” while Abbott quipped in response, “Frankly, she must have been looking in the mirror when she said that.”

The LRB was expected to release a third ruling Friday on the government’s appointment of Charles Jago as the mediator between the BCTF and their employer, the BC Public School Employers Association. Lambert reiterated the union’s issues with Jago during the press conference yesterday, citing his lack of experience as a mediator, his authorship of a 2006 report that criticized the teachers’ union, and his own admission that the process would be “mission impossible.”

But regardless of the LRB’s ultimate decision on Jago, the BCTF is far from ready to give up the fight. The Action Plan includes not only steps to fight Bill 22, but also to launch a public relations campaign that would highlight a new education issue each month for the next year from their Better Schools for B.C. document, including child poverty, Aboriginal education, education underfunding, and homophobia and heterosexism in schools, to name a few.

A key part of the plan will be to push for the removal or repeal of Bill 22 — although certain aspects, like the cooling-off period and contract negotiations, will expire in August. If the current government refuses to budge this year, the BCTF will push for an NDP government in the next school year, even though the NDP has said it has no plans to repeal the legislation.

For his part, Abbott says he isn’t worried.

“I’ve been in and around politics enough to know that election campaigns can often turn in two weeks, never mind two months, never mind over a year, which is our situation today. The government has plenty of time to work through the issues that it has,” he says.

Katie Hyslop reports on education and youth issues for The Tyee Solutions Society.

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