Waving placards and chanting slogans, hundreds of district teachers and supporters crowded the grassy Main Street island near Penticton Secondary for Monday’s day of action.
The rally was part of a province-wide campaign by the 41,000-member B.C. Teachers Federation to send a message to the B.C. government to negotiate, not legislate, a contract.
“That’s no way to engage in a cooperative relationship to work for the betterment of students, by bullying us back into a collective agreement. That isn’t collective or an agreement, it’s just an imposed settlement,” said president Kevin Epp of the Okanagan Skaha Teachers’ Union amid the honking horns and shouts of encouragement from passersby.
“It crushes them (teachers) and I can’t speak loudly enough or long enough about our teachers and how hard they work in and out of the classroom, the extra volunteer time they do. And by using this weapon — I have no other term for it — to slap them in the face, it does nothing but damage morale.”
He added ultimately it is the students who are the real victims as a result of the flawed process and government under-funding of school districts.
Monday’s protest came at the same time the BCTF asked the B.C. Labour Relations Board to allow it to withdraw services.
Tuesday, just after the LRB granted teachers the right to strike for up to three consecutive days, Education Minister George Abbott tabled legislation that would suspend all strike action.
While the legislature debates the new act, teachers could walk off the job as early as Monday.
The bill imposes a six-month “cooling-off period,” and the appointment of a mediator to look at non-monetary issues such as class size and composition.
In a separate penalty provision, Abbott said if necessary a fine of $1.3 million a day on the BCTF and up to $475 a day on individual teachers could be levied for a strike in defiance of the legislation.
Designation of teachers’ work as an essential service prevents them from implementing a full-scale walkout.
Teachers are asking for a 15 per cent wage increase that Abbott says would cost taxpayers $2 billion, which he says is unaffordable and he is sticking to the net-zero mandate for public-sector workers.
During the current job action teachers have refused to fill out report cards, supervise recesses and other non-essential duties.
“But even with this, teachers have been at work and working in the best interests of their kids,” said Epp. “They have been providing updates for parents, meeting with parents, emailing and phoning. Teachers are working with kids, teachers are working for kids and it’s time for the government to step up and recognize that.”
The president also pointed to the negative impact he says the current funding scheme is already having on new teachers coming into the system.
As an example, he pointed to one educator who in 2011 alone had to find six other part-time jobs because in seven years he has been unable to land a full-time position with the district.
“He’s an excellent teacher and the (school board) trustees have told him he’s doing a great job, but he’s contemplating not only leaving teaching but leaving our community because our system is so underfunded we can’t afford to keep a great young teacher like that,” said Epp.
Having worked in the school district as a teacher for many years, Paul Kopf agreed with the president’s comments.
“We’re getting a lot of new teachers in because a lot of us are on the downhill slide, but for these new teachers — who are often married to other teachers — it’s just too difficult,” he said. “I think we are all feeling the same way, we want to be with our kids, all of us want to teach our kids, that’s what we are there for. None of us want to walk (the picket line) but the government is just stepping on us, squashing us.”
Pen High student Jean-Luc Chetner was also among those at the rally with a vested interest in the outcome.
“My mother is a teacher and I support their right to negotiate a contract for wages and working conditions,” he said. “I know I would be frustrated if I were a teacher because if they can’t negotiate their rights, it takes away from their freedoms.”
The proposed legislation extends the current teacher contract terms until June 2013 and gives the unnamed mediator until June 30 to seek agreement on the non-monetary issues.
A new fund to address class size and special needs support will also be put in place in response to last year’s court decision saying those issues were taken out of teacher contracts without adequate consultation.
It provides $30 million extra this year, $60 million next year and $75 million each year after that, amounts the BCTF has rejected as far too little.
As well, the bill would include a new teacher evaluation and selection process that Abbott acknowledged will be controversial.