The Teachers’ Strike: An Immodest Proposal

The BC teachers’ strike is now in its second week and the predictable entrenchment of polarised positions is well under way. There’s perhaps more nuance to the dispute than is evident from a distance, but for an outsider it appears – as in so many other such disputes – that one can either side wholeheartedly with the teachers, or with the government, but any effort to locate space somewhere between risks being branded a traitor from both directions.

Most people I know are actively siding with the teachers, though that may say more about my choice of associates than about the opinions of the broader public. In most cases “actively” appears to mean the clicking of “share” on teacher-sympathetic memes and links, but some have actually put their mouses down and are attending demonstrations and rallies, and a few have even joined picket lines at local schools.

I confess, I’m reluctantly among the apathetic majority on this, even as I cheer on those getting off their couches. That’s not to say that I don’t think that the teachers are, almost by default, sitting on the moral high ground here, at least as far as negotiating behaviour goes. Everything about the government’s approach to bargaining (sic) with the teachers has been unethical, illegal, and immoral.

Clark and her education minister (high school graduate and reputed pedagogical caveman Peter Fassbender) have been so nefariously abusive to the concept of bargaining in good faith that this labour dispute should more accurately be described as a lockout-by-provocation. It’s difficult to imagine that what’s happening is anything less than an ideologically-driven attempt destroy the powerful BC Teachers’ Federation, and perhaps the public school system itself.

But even if you believe it is just about money and budget balancing, the BC Liberals have betrayed every principle upon which our political and justice systems are based by using legislation to retroactively cancel legal agreements made in good faith and to deprive an identifiable group of constitutional rights. This isn’t governance, it’s bullying. No, that’s too mild a word. It’s abuse of power. Christy Clark should be ashamed of herself.

It’s not the issue of constitutionality, or the right to bargain collectively about which I am apathetic, or I likely wouldn’t even bother writing this. What discourages me is having to watch, once again, an all but scripted circus performed by two self-interested parties that has nothing to do with bargaining and everything to do with waging PR battles.

Herewith, and possibly at great risk to my future social well-being, I shall ponder aloud some of the questions and concerns that arise for me as this plays out, and try to imagine potential ways in which we can find something better to do than stake out intransigent and/or ideological positions that do nothing to bring sides to anything resembling consensus and compromise. I see little evidence that the power people on either side have serious interest in exploring anything but the submission of the other. There must be a better way.

The Problems

When even washed-up old radical punk rockers aren’t onside, you know you have a PR problem:


Seemingly, ol’ Joey Shithead’s head is full of shit on this one, for no amount of compromise on the part of the teachers seems enough to satisfy the sociopathic singleminded crusade of Clark and Fassbender, unless by compromise you mean total capitulation.

Keithley’s apparent betrayal of his fight-the-man roots through his rejection of unequivocal support for striking workers – however illogical the expression – is notable, though, for it reveals something about public perception that, presumably, the government counts on: a goodly number of people simply don’t see the teachers as oppressed labourers of the underclass. Clark thinks that by driving the teachers to strike, she has little to lose and much to gain.

That’s if you believe Clark is that canny. Or even more of a stretch, that you believe Fassbender is. Personally, I think it’s far more likely that Clark, without a significant party base and desperate to gain the approval of the people most distressed by her hijacking of the BC Liberal leadership – those who were banking on their boy Kevin Falcon – is being manipulated into this anti-teacher campaign by some power-brokers who envision her as future road kill on their way back to power, whatever it takes. Watch for either a subsequent purge of Clark and her (few committed) party allies, or a wholesale abandonment of the BC Liberal brand she leads by the people with big money, in favour of another vehicle.

Conspiracy of Fraser Institute-affiliated overlords or not, on the evening news striking teachers don’t look anything like beleaguered McDonald’s employees sweating over deep fryers for ten bucks an hour – superficially they look more like the one-and-three-quarter percent folks complaining that the salad fork was placed incorrectly on the setting. This is at least partly why the teachers’ union tries to focus public attention – and maintain the most bargaining rigidity – on class size and composition, rather than salary and benefits.

The question of class size has been a primary topic in teachers’ contract negotiations as far back as I can remember. This is not unreasonable in principle – a smaller class is probably easier to control, and in them students must inevitably have more opportunities for personal, quality attention – assuming that the teacher doesn’t use the opportunity to exert less effort. (Teachers are, after all, only as human as the rest of us.)

But exactly how much smaller must a class be to be measurably beneficial? Or, the question turned around, how much bigger must it be to measurably harmful?

Reportedly, teachers are demanding a return to pre-2002 class sizes. Here is a comparison of the caps, according to BCTF documents (here and here):

2001 caps2013-14 caps
Grades 1-32224
Grades 4-730Avg. 30*
Grades 8-1230Avg. 30*

* BCTF says: “The education ministry only required that boards maintain a district-wide average of 30.”

According to a Globe and Mail article, 2013-14 class size averages were actually lower than the caps:

Grades 1 to 3: average 21.5 students
Grades 4 to 7: average 25.7 students
Grades 8 to 12: average 23.0 students

Of course, if those are averages it may (but doesn’t necessarily) mean that some classes exceeded the intended caps. Since some grades 4-12 classes are justifiably exempt from caps (ie: band, drama and physical education), things certainly don’t sound unreasonable.

The apparent differences between 2001 and 2014 are not massive. Are they significant enough differences to strike over? I don’t doubt that most teachers genuinely care about their students and desire a better learning experience for them, but the BCTF’s foregrounding of class sizes sounds more like a PR gimmick (and perhaps an attempt at featherbedding) than a serious defence of students’ learning opportunities. In this regard, perhaps Joe Keithley has a point.

Teachers are not wrong to want to have meaningful input into class sizes, nor are they mistaken in their distrust of the incompetent and/or willfully destructive overseers of education in Victoria. More thought should be given to class sizes than simply packing kids into a training assembly line, and it shouldn’t be up to the whims of ideologues, right or left, school board- or cabinet-level. But neither should a one-size-fits-all standard be established (exclusively) through a labour negotiation. There are reasonable cases to be made for greater flexibility, and the apparent intransigence of the union on this subject makes it harder to sympathise unconditionally.

Class composition

Composition, the other side of the class-size coin, is another matter. Or is it?

The anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that classrooms aren’t quite the bastions of calm studiousness that they once were (when??). Media reports of the classroom drama provoked by a category of students referred to these days as “Special Needs” are common. In my day these were referred to as “Special Ed” (a label to which I always objected for reasons pertaining to early-life nomenclature). The problem, it seems, is that the ratio of regular needs vs. special needs has shrunk, and teachers can’t be expected to manage them and the class effectively.

It’s unclear to me whether there are dramatically more special needs students than there were when I was in school or, more plausibly, we have gotten better at identifying students with special needs. If the standards were the same in the late 1960s and the 1970s as they are today, I’m pretty sure that I would have been one of those students labelled “special needs”. What I will concede is that special needs students’ disruptive behaviours sound much more disruptive, and command much more attention, than in the past, undoubtedly for a complex variety of socio-cultural and socio-economic reasons.

It may not matter if there are more disrupters, or if the disrupters are worse, at least as far as the subject of negotiations around composition go. What does matter, and what seems undeniable, is that teachers need more help in the classroom. We need to find a way to get them that help, for both their sake and for the sake of all the students.

It seems that the teachers’ union sees only one solution: more teachers in smaller classes, and the way to achieve that is to create and enforce a province-wide size-and-composition standard. I’m not surprised that the government resists this, even if you assume (largely an academic exercise, I admit) that it has no ideological aims in doing so. A blanket formula is an inefficient and therefore expensive solution that may or may not resolve the problems equitably.

If at all. I hear a lot of horror stories these days about dramatic student meltdowns in classrooms, in some case where the other students have to evacuate the room until the special needs student is calmed. I’ve done a small amount of after-school volunteer work in an inner city school in Vancouver, and while the groups of students we attempted to tutor were obviously some of the more disruptive cases, I have a very difficult time imagining that a blanket size-and-composition formula will be anything more than sticky plaster on a gaping flesh wound.

Gaping wound is appropriate, I think. I spent nineteen years going through eighteen grades, in a range of school districts of varying socio-economic standing, and not once was there ever a special needs event anywhere near as dramatic as those commonly described today. I raise this not because I wish to minimise the importance of composition, but because what bugs me most about the discourse surrounding teacher/government negotiations is that I hear a lot of “how are we going to manage these kids?” and not much “WHY THE FUCK ARE CHILDREN HAVING 911-WORTHY MELTDOWNS AND WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO ABOUT IT?”

Apparently what we’re going to do is shut down the entire province’s public education system and fight about whether there should be 20 or 22 students in a class, or whether those who provide extra help in the classroom should be members of the BC Teachers Federation or the Canadian Union of Public Employees, and then continue on perpetuating the same systemic conditions that drive six-year-old to unprecedented screaming shitfits. In this matter, I have no faith in either one party or the other, if the only tangible communication between them is to be through the press release.

“Major Strasser has been shot. Round up the usual suspects!”– Captain Renault, Casablanca.

I feel like I’ve seen this exact same labour relations skit re-staged decade after decade after decade, with little progress mostly regress to show for it. At least on the part of the unions. The government, it seems, has almost consistently gained the advantage.

On Facebook, irate activists, both real and armchair, speak of how upset the people are, how they will rise up to toss Clark from office next election, oh it can’t come soon enough! And I think back to – what was it, 1983? – when tens of thousands of people marched outside the Social Credit convention shouting General Strike! to protest Bill Bennett’s “Restraint Program”.

Largely led by the BC Government Employee’s Union, followed by the BCTF, a general strike actually began to take shape. At least 200,000 people walked off their jobs in protest. The leader of the opposition, Dave Barrett, was forcibly carried out of the legislature by the Sergeant at Arms when he refused to submit to closure of the restraint bills. In the end, the union leadership collapsed, the strike came to an end, and the bills were passed into law, but the consensus was – even among Socreds – that the hated architects of restraint were doomed electorally.

Only three years later, the Socreds chose a grinning half-wit as their new leader, called an election, and won by an even larger majority.

I wouldn’t normally wish to quote Vaughn Palmer, but in a recent Vancouver Sun column, he repeated a relevant joke that’s apparently been circulating of late:

The last time Clark was in this much trouble in the polls, she won the election.

This isn’t 1983, of course – it’s 2014, but what’s changed on the electoral scene, besides the calendar and the faces?

Despite the fact that for decades it’s been a mostly-failed power-gaining strategy for those who identify as “the left”, we still see people vowing to win the next election by huddling together under the stale-brand banner of a political party that couldn’t even win an election against a Cheshire Cat when it was all but handed to them on a platter. Waiting for the pendulum to swing back to where it was in 1972 seems like an insufficiently active response when your biggest growth opportunity for new votes is young people for whom the visceral connection to 1972 is the same as for 1872. In the 2011 census, roughly 30% of British Columbians were born in 1986 or later.

What to do?

Given the trajectory of demographics (among other factors), the BC New Democratic Party is probably as successful as it’s going to get – barring some sort of large-scale economic collapse that creates the kind of conditions that spawned the CCF – without some sort of massive revitalisation and wholesale revision of its ideological underpinning, and it appears that even something as superficial as a major re-branding is a long way off. I’m sorry, all of you cute old lefty activists who know all the words to The Internationale – as integral as you are, this just ain’t your time in history.

It’s possible that the NDP’s failure to get with the times (however much the times are rather astringent to the tongue) will inspire newer, younger voters displeased with the BC Liberals to embrace another party. At present, the Green Party appears best poised to exploit this, as its one and only MLA, the personable, intelligent, and very reasonable Andrew Weaver, is giving the party a significant credibility boost. The Green brand has its own historical baggage to overcome image-wise, though that may not be insurmountable if the importance of environmental issues continues to appeal to, particularly, younger people.

A handicap the left has, I think, is that they continually take the bait to militant outrage and stake positions in near-total opposition, which makes them look shrill and contrarian while the governing party looks calm and responsible, even as it is recognised as nasty. The teachers strike/lockout is another of these very effective tactics that encourage the government’s opponents to renew their self-exile well away from corridors of influence. The longer its opponents are out of power, the more barriers they have erected to them regaining that power. Unjust, sure. But effective.

This idea of self-exile seems important. Imagine how much more difficult it would be to oppress people who are sitting face to face at the decision-making table with you. It’s so much easier when they’re standing out on the street holding picket signs and you don’t have to look them in the eye or ride down to lunch in the elevator with them.

Here are some more interesting numbers. The BC Liberal Party had 35,000 members when Gordon Campbell resigned. When Christy Clark won the leadership, it had almost 90,000.* Clark won the leadership with 52% of the vote.

Likely, many of the 55,000 members who joined the BC Liberals just for the leadership convention in 2011 have since allowed their memberships to lapse. So how many new members would it take to shake things up a bit, in 2014? There are 41,000 BCTF members in BC. If 50% of them, each with a friend, joined up, they’d probably have control of the party. Imagine what could be accomplished with more than just teachers?

I’m sure there are many opponents of the governing party who would read this and think “no way! I’m not one of them.” But, except for the most rabidly left-wing, I believe there is much more philosophical overlap between the average teacher and the average BC Liberal member than might be suspected. Most of the teachers I know are simply not that radical.

Join the BC Liberals? Why the hell not? It can’t be any less effective. Here’s the link.

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