it looks like the teachers are going to come off the picket lines today following an announcement that both sides are willing to accept ready’s arbitration recommendations – which doesn’t mean they have an agreement yet, but that there is a framework within which to negotiate on items such as class-size, teacher-on-call wage increases, and an increase in education funding overall for this and next fiscal year. the next few weeks will see negotiators sit back down to the table and hammer out the finer points to take to the teachers for a vote. we’ll see what kindof support it actually has at that point.
rarely in a labour struggle is there a clear victory at the end for the union movement – and although there are often clear losses – most resolutions involve a little bit of both. since i have been watching this dispute like a soap opera over the last two weeks (hand-wringing – what will happen on tomorrow’s episode?), i of course have an opinion on this resolution and where i think the bctf and labour movement has won or lost points in this struggle. while it is too early to know what a final agreement will look like, i think that overall the teachers will be able to declare a victory, despite there being little chance of across-the-board wage increases.
so first of all on the wins:
because the government underestimated the teachers, and their willingness to break the law, the bctf came out in a strategically strong position with both committed members and public support. as cupe workers joined onside to help escalate the actions across the province, support only grew among the public, and the government’s plea for people to “obey the law” rang hollow (particularly when delivered by government officials who have repeatedly refused to honour international labour law and freely-bargained contracts). a low-point for the government was definitely the moment education minister, shirley bond encouraged teachers to scab on each other – a cry that went unheeded in a climate of bctf militancy and member-solidarity. bond clearly misread the union-supporting public in bc which is larger than the liberals would like to admit. all of this means the union movement came out looking stronger, while support for the government weakened.
this puts unionized workers in a better position overall in bc because it is unlikely that after this government embarassment, they will be so quick to enact bullying legislation in the future. the bcgeu and other negotiating unions may reap benefits from this sooner rather than later as they head into their contract sessions in the new year. in addition, the willingness of people to take action and stick together has provided a living demonstration of the power of democratic unionism (the bctf is much more democratic than many other unions i could mention), and the ability to make change by physically defying that which is unjust.
in addition to all of the above, fractures inside the bc federation of labour that have become apparent over the last two weeks, may provide an opening to challenge the weak leadership of jim sinclair – which if played right, could result in a win for the more militant forces within the bcfed. that of course is an open question until next november’s convention where the leaders of the fed are elected.
unfortunately, it would be a bit too pollyanna-ish to just focus on the wins without also noting apparent and probable losses overall:
i think the biggest problem from the labour movement perspective was weak overall leadership. while jinny simms (bctf president) shone in the media and was exulted by her membership, bcfed leader jim sinclair got weaker by the day, and by the end the fed was disavowing cupe rallies scheduled for today as “inappropriate”. this was a disappointing repeat performance of the same inept and shoddy leadership we saw during the heu “illegal” action 16 months ago – the only difference being this time that jinny simms was able to resist it given her broad public support, whereas fred muesen (heu president) did not enjoy the same public persona or suppport during the heu actions. this allowed the bctf (with the support of cupe) to continue on with their strike despite the fact it is very likely sinclair and the fed were arguing with them to shut it down. of course, i am speculating here, but the internal dynamics as i have glimpsed them give me some idea this is a likely scenario.
as a result of this fracture in the fed (which i blame on sinclair and the unions who left the bctf out to dry including my own) the labour movement once again lost the opportunity to truly hold the government accountable for its heedless social and economic policies by taking general strike action. as working people we have a single mechanism at our disposal for resisting injustice and cruelty on a mass scale – which is to withdraw our labour until our demands are met. yet our leadership seems loathe to bring us to it, even when our members are eager to go. once again, we have been let down by those we elected to represent us at the union table – and i am hopeful there may be a serious contender against sinclair the next time around to take the fed in a more militant direction. with a government like the bc libs, this is no time for weak knees – our future as a society is at stake with every program that is cut and every wage that is frozen – and without opposition that backs up what it says with action, the government will continue to steam-roller us.
i think the ndp similiarly did not capitalize on or support the mobilizations for fear of being seen as too close to labour. it is a shame when the party of the workers, disavows itself from the active organizations of the working class – but of course, not a surprise given the history of social democracy and the debates currently going on in the ndp about its new direction. with more support from both labour and the ndp, i really do believe that we would be looking at a much clearer victory in the teachers’ dispute this morning than we currently are.
but despite these things, it needs to be said, although teachers are not going back with across-the-board increases in wages or all their demands met – they should be able to return with the dignity of having fought against and moved the government into a more tenable position. without this strike, the teachers would have gained absolutely nothing at all, and their rights to bargain would have eroded that much more while acquiescing to unjust legislation. as it is, they have a framework within which to start, and i’m optimistic they have frightened the government just enough to ensure that other public sector unions will not have such a hard time in future negotiations.
i recognize it is with reluctance teachers are being asked to support these recommendations – and as a union activist, i would much rather see a general strike go into effect until their demands are met – but given the problematic leadership in the bc labour movement as a whole – teachers have to recognize that they have acted in the most honourable, militant and unified way possible. although i am ashamed of my union leadership, i am still proud to be a member of the rank and file and am happy to make common cause those union sisters and brothers who have been on the frontlines supporting the teachers and confronting this government.