Opinion

COLUMN: Critical thinking required in B.C. teachers' dispute

Fleetwood was ground zero for the B.C. Teachers Federation strike on Tuesday evening, as a large number of people gathered at Education Minister Peter Fassbender’s constituency office just off Fraser Highway.

A strike which drags into a second school year, and shows no sign of being settled, is unprecedented in B.C. – even though labour relations between teachers and the provincial government have been frosty for decades.

Fassbender, a veteran politician who is new to the provincial scene, won his Surrey-Fleetwood seat by 200 votes in May, 2013, ousting veteran NDP MLA Jagrup Brar. He was appointed education minister by Premier Christy Clark as part of the new cabinet she unveiled just after the election. It was a tough assignment.

He was quickly put to work trying to reach a 10-year agreement with the BCTF, which appeared to be a non-starter right from the moment the premier announced it.

The minister has repeatedly said that the B.C. Public School Employers Association (BCPSEA) and the BCTF need to come to a negotiated settlement, but seemed out of touch by not insisting on bargaining taking place over the summer months.

Whether he was trying to stay hands-off or not is hard to say, but when some desultory talks did resume under a media blackout, it didn’t take long for him to do a round of media interviews.

While he says he was simply doing his job by giving information as the minister of education, the politics in this dispute – by both sides – is blatantly obvious.

A rally outside his office, and visits by teachers and others to other constituency offices, is appropriate. It’s strange how most BC Liberal MLAs arranged not to be in their offices Tuesday.

The government is playing a heavy brand of politics with this dispute. It doesn’t have to face voters for three years and is clearly fed up with the BCTF. Two losses in court, over the stripping of an earlier contract by the BC Liberals when Clark was minister of education, haven’t helped. Those are under appeal.

However, this dispute directly affects all public school students and their parents. They are missing classes or scrambling to make childcare arrangements.

No area is more affected than Surrey, which is B.C.’s largest school district.

The BCTF is also playing hardball. Fassbender made a reasonable suggestion last week that teachers go back to work for two weeks and have bargaining continue. The union wouldn’t buy that. It is making its points by squeezing its own members, who don’t get strike pay and have already lost more than $5,000 apiece in wages.

There is really very little that those caught up in this can do, other than organize rallies and vent their frustrations. Traditional news media outlets and social media are filled with comments from frustrated parents and teachers.

There is one other thing that could help shine the spotlight on this dispute for what it is – a political battle. If teachers are unhappy with the way the BCTF executive is conducting the strike (and there is little sign that they are), they can organize and vote out that executive. They would likely need to get rid of their local leadership as well, as heading up a BCTF local provides a path to the BCTF executive suite.

As for parents and other members of the public, they can take a good look at whether or not a recall campaign is warranted. While recalling an MLA in B.C. is difficult, it is not impossible.

BC Liberal MLAs are showing unwavering support for the government’s hard line. If enough members of the public are truly unhappy with the politicization of this labour dispute, starting recall campaigns for Liberal MLAs is a way to send a strong message.

It is unlikely that the public or BCTF members will discipline their leaders. Most people will express their unhappiness, make alternative arrangements for their children and hope against hope that the strike will end soon.

At this juncture, that seems like a faint hope.

Frank Bucholtz writes Thursdays for the Peace Arch News. He is the editor of the Langley Times.

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