Teachers are getting lots of fresh air this week, as they stage protest events throughout Penticton in support of their three-day strike.
When the Labour Relations Board ruled that the teachers could stage a short-term strike, it also prohibited them from setting up picket lines at the schools. So teachers have been hitting the streets in busy areas to raise awareness about the issues as they see them.
“Spirits are pretty high around here,” said Kevin Epp, president of the Okanagan Skaha Teachers’ Union. He said the first day of the strike went well, including a very well-attended special general meeting for the union members. “I think of the teachers actively working, we had nearly every member, well over 350 folks, in the Cleland Theatre.”
Afterwards, the teachers hit the streets.
“We had a great show of support, where we had all those members get out there on Main Street,” he said. “They are smiling from ear to ear, trying to get the message out that teachers aren’t a greedy bunch of slackers but are really just trying to support education.”
The strike continued Tuesday and today, with groups of teachers out protesting from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
“We are calling it a ‘stick-it’ line,” said Epp. “We are standing together in larger groups demonstrating … moving around with the signs, getting some attention.”
A group from the South Okanagan went to Victoria Tuesday to join a protest at the B.C. Legislature buildings, and today, another group is heading to Kelowna to join in a mass protest there.
Wendy Hyer, superintendent for the Okanagan Skaha School District, said the schools have been very quiet.
“Credit to the teachers, they are abiding by the Labour Relations Board ruling. They are demonstrating, but they are not picketing schools,” said Hyer. But when teachers return to the classroom Thursday, she cautions it won’t be quite back to normal yet.
“They will still be in phase one of strike action, so it won’t return to normal,” said Hyer. Teachers will continue refusing to do administrative work or supervising outside the classroom until Bill 22 passes, and imposes a cooling off period.
Unless teachers violate the LRB ruling and extend their strike beyond today, B.C. Liberal house leader Rich Coleman said the debate on legislation putting an end to their withdrawal of service could stretch into next week before becoming law. Bill 22 carries the threat of heavy fines for further strike action by teachers once it is passed.
“Teachers feel we are in a crisis state here, we are at a critical juncture in education,” said Epp. “If nothing changes, then our education system is … going down a very bad path to a place where it is no longer a world-class education system.”
The schools remain open during the strike days, though Hyer said the majority of parents have made other arrangements for their children on the strike days.
“If anything, (Monday), we might have had one student show up at a handful of schools. We do have private day cares that operate in schools and our StrongStart Centres are open, so those programs are still going,” said Hyer. “But for kids showing up to attend class, or receive instruction or be supervised by district staff, there really haven’t been many.”
Hyer said parents have been co-operative in not bringing their children to the schools.
“We’ve asked our principals to accommodate parents, but we make it really clear to parents that we are not providing instruction and there is inadequate supervision. We try to make it clear to them that it is not necessarily going to be as safe an environment as it usually is,” she said. “They’ve been fairly co-operative; I think most parents want to make sure their kids are safe.”
Administrators and other staff still at the schools are not wasting the time, according to Hyer.
“There has been an opportunity to do some professional development with some of our certified educational assistants,” she said. “Everybody who is at work is trying to use the time wisely. They are catching up on all those things they don’t have time to do when they are on supervision.”
Epp said the teachers recognize the strike is inconveniencing people, but they needed to make the point about problems with their negotiations, especially in light of Bill 22, which not only ends their job action, but imposes conditions for settling a new contract. He also said the teachers want to convince the public there is more than just a salary dispute at stake.
“In reality, this strike is taking $33 million out of the pockets of teachers,” said Epp. “If teachers had continued with phase one, it might have garnered some attention, but a full-scale walkout is a very strong statement from teachers.”
Education Minister George Abbott said the three-day strike allows teachers to “vent” their hostility toward the government before returning to classrooms. The legislation also changes the rules for hiring teachers as well as dealing with class size and special needs support.
If the government had staged an emergency debate to push the bill through this past weekend, it could have inflamed tensions further and triggered an illegal strike, Abbott said.
And while Epp maintains there is more to the dispute than salaries, one of the big factors in the dispute is the province’s insistence on maintaining the net zero mandate in the negotiations.
“I’m not going to deny that there isn’t a piece of this dispute that includes the government’s unwillingness to bargain,” said Epp, who points out that the CEAs, who are part of CUPE, have a new contract that pays them for an additional 45 minutes a day.
“They for years have been doing that work,” said Epp. “Now they are going to be paid for that. The government calls that net zero, I am OK with that if that’s what helps them sleep at night.”