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Teacher job action nabs runner-up story of the year in 2012

For the first half of 2012, you couldn't go anywhere in B.C. without talking or hearing about the state of education, putting the B.C. Teachers Federation job action in the runner-up spot for Story of the Year.

Certainly, 2011 set the stage for a turbulent year for public education across the province in 2012. After about three months of contract negotiations did not yield fruitful results, the BCTF voted 90 per cent in favour of job action, just days before the current contract would expire (June 30).

From day one, the BCTF outlined its top priorities at the bargaining table; improved working conditions (classroom size and composition, learning specialists ratios, caseloads and prep time), increased salaries and more power at the bargaining table. Meanwhile, Education Minister George Abbott remained firm on the government's 'net zero' policy.

By the time 2012 rang in, students had begun the school year under Phase 1 of teacher job action, in which teachers would not perform administrative tasks like filling out forms, collecting data, meeting with principals or writing report cards.

Talks between the BCTF and the B.C. Public Schools Employers Association had broken down by the beginning of December with no resolution in sight. By February, the two parties had met on approximately 80 different occasions in just under a year.

At the end of February, the BCTF applied to the Labour Relations Board to set in motion the next phase of job action. On March 2, teachers across the province voted 87 per cent in favour of a three-day walk out in protest of Bill 22, which was introduced by Abbott. The bill essentially would enforce a hold on teacher job action while a mediator steps in to assist discussions between the two parties.

By the end of the month, the bill was passed, and Charles Jago joined contract negotiations between the BCTF and BCPSEA. Around the same time, teachers resumed full duties in the classroom.

However, April 17-18, the BCTF voted 73 per cent in favour of withdrawing extra-curricular activities, leaving both parents, students and educators scrambling to find out what the job action would mean for sports teams, events and activities planned in the final weeks of the school year.

While parents and community members stepped up to help fill in the gaps in many different capacities, the job action did have some impact.

Students at John Barsby missed an opportunity to perform at a provincial drama festival in Kelowna while some grad ceremonies had to be rearranged to occur within school hours, and Secondary school awards nights were cancelled altogether.

Sports were also affected, particularly high school girls soccer, spring football and track and field. The elementary district and zone track and field championships both had to be cancelled.

The job action kept the Bulletin's letter's section fired up all year long, as both parents, teachers and other community members weighed in on the issue.

"I agree that governments (in layman’s terms) in general are political liars and manipulators who will cover things up, hide things, mislead the general public if they are able; however, I do not believe that gives the teachers the right to walk off the job and hold our children’s education hostage to make a point," wrote Christina Harvie in a letter to the editor on Mar. 8. "The saying 'two wrongs don’t make a right' seems to apply here – and it certainly doesn’t win any favour from the parents … The only ones getting hurt and caught in the middle are the children, and that’s not right regardless of what ‘side’ you’re on."

On May 8, Tim Daniel wrote in: "Bargaining between our union and the government over class size and composition has failed, and so has legal action. Teachers feel they must now individually fight for the quality of public education and their civil rights. This is why we have taken the difficult decision to temporarily withdraw volunteer services, keeping the issues facing public education front and centre and allowing us extra time to engage the public – such as writing letters to the newspaper … It is true parents will now have to walk a mile or two in our shoes when it comes to grad ceremonies and other things. Parents know where to place the blame, and it isn’t with the teachers."

And James A. Lettic, in response to the debate on withdrawn extra-curriculars, wrote: "Setting aside the controversy over ‘curricular’, ‘extra-curricular’ and ‘voluntary’ duties, this current strategy does nothing more than increase the burden on students and parents and illustrates the desperate and avaricious bent of the BCTF and its union locals resulting in a breach of public trust … If there is anything to be learned from this dispute between government and the B.C. teachers’ union, it is greater insight into the herd mentality of the people responsible for the welfare of our children and the nefarious masterminds behind the collective effort to dominate our educational institutions."

Resolution came June 29, when B.C. teachers voted to ratify a tentative contract agreement. The deal, which expires June 30, 2013, gives teachers new benefits and seniority provisions but no wage increases.

The agreement was voted in with 75 per cent in favour, although the BCTF noted that only 52 per cent of the membership voted on the agreement.

Nanaimo's educators said while the agreement provided relief from job action and Labour Relations Board rulings, it also left important issues unresolved.

“Hopefully we’ll see a restoration of whatever normal is in the fall,” said Jamie Brennan, school board chairman, shortly before the vote. “I imagine there’s a feeling of lack of fulfillment in the sense that teachers didn’t get what they set out to achieve. I know they’re feeling beat up by the government.”

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