After a year of stalled contract negotiations and six months of work-to-rule job action, B.C.’s 41,000 public school teachers found themselves in the throes of a rapidly escalating labour dispute with the province this week.
While teachers from across the province reported a sense of comfort during a massive downtown march and rally at the legislature Tuesday morning, few were willing to speculate on how the conflict would affect their plans for spending spring break.
Provincial government employees across the capital were also thrown into discord Tuesday, as B.C. Teachers’ Federation members, along with other unionized workers, picketed illegally outside downtown office buildings.
The protestors later congregated at the rally opposing an imposed contract and back-to-work legislation tabled by Education Minister George Abbott on Feb. 27.
Bill 22 is expected to be passed by government sometime early next week and imposes large fines on any teachers who continue to strike.
Stephen Anderson, a teacher librarian from Surrey, was one of about 500 teachers from his district who made the trip to Victoria.
“When we’re at the school sites and there are 20 or 30 teachers, you ask: ‘Are we all together in this?’ And when we see something like this, it feels like you’re a part of a bigger movement,” said Anderson. “On the ferry the (B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union) workers came to talk to us and we realized it wasn’t just about the teachers, it was about what the government is doing to all unionized workers.”
Spring break in the Greater Victoria School District starts Monday and it will be a welcome opportunity for teachers to spend time with their families, said Theresa Stokes, a teacher at Eagle View elementary in View Royal.
Stokes was among the picketers Tuesday morning who joined the crowd at the legislature.
Stokes, who is also a BCTF rep, will spend her break in Vancouver for the federation’s annual general meeting.
“This is definitely upheaval,” Stokes said. “I think most people are going to carry on with their plans (next week), but it’s going to be busy at union headquarters.”
Despite her strong support of the union and participation in the strike, Stokes says she will continue to keep her politics separate from her teachings.
“It was a sad day when the bill came through,” she said. “I had a student teacher in my room and I said ‘… you can be as sad as you want, but when that bell rings and those kids come in, they’re going to have a great day in my classroom.’”
Yet some, including Anderson, have no qualms discussing Bill 22 with students.
“I’ll say: ‘When there’s something you feel is wrong, do you stand up for what you believe in or do you stay quiet and let things happen?’” Anderson said.
The need to keep contract discussions out of classrooms was a belief shared by many of the educators demonstrating that day, including Spectrum Community School teacher Peter Hunter. And like most teachers speaking only for themselves and not representing a teachers’ association, Hunter was wary of commenting publicly on just how much he will participate in future job action.
“I plan to support something as long as it’s legal and civil,” he said.
Sporting a pink plastic tie – an anti-bullying statement that was well-represented at the demonstration – and posing for a photo with his young daughter, Peter Train was representative of the overall sense of optimism at the rally.
“I’m encouraged that (so many) people feel the same way,” said Train, a teacher in the Sea to Sky School District.