The summer of 2014 was a suffocating one, due to both the unusually warm weather and the heated tensions between the BC Teachers’ Federation and the Liberal government in power. What began as a series of negotiations escalated into a walkout of teachers all across the Canadian province of British Columbia, leaving the future of education uncertain.
The province of British Columbia is notorious for its history of strikes, one of the most well-known being the BCTF’s (BC Teachers’ Association) job action that took place during the summer of 2014. This particular strike was an embarrassment not only for the province, but for the entire country of Canada, which boasts of an education system that has consistently been ranked in the top 10 in global charts. (source: worldtop20.org) Although the job action that the teachers took from 6 March onwards seemed abrupt to many parents, it was an unavoidable decision for the union whose members had been working without a legal contract for nearly a year and hadn’t been able to negotiate one since 1996.
What compelled the teacher’s union to take action? The contract the teachers had been working under had expired nine months before the official job action began in March. The teachers, dissatisfied with their working conditions, wanted to take part in the negotiations process instead of obeying a contract issued by the government. Their three main concerns were salary, class size, and composition.
The BCTF, the union that represents the teachers of BC, argued for an 8% increase in salary over the span of five years and an additional $450 million to their budget to reduce the number of students per teacher (in each classroom). Their goal was to create a fairer ratio of teachers to students and to limit the number of students with special needs in each classroom to provide a more egalitarian environment for students to learn in. The union’s demands were refused by the government, which caused anger for many union members who claimed that the Liberal Party was purposely withholding funds from the education system to finance their own interests.
The strike officially began on March 6, 2014, with 89% of all teachers across BC voting to take job action, which began the next month with teachers halting all written communication with education administrators as well as activities that happened outside of the allotted school time, such as clubs, sports, etc. Even the first stage of job action had immediate consequences; not only were students deprived of extracurricular activities that they enjoyed, but parents were also inconvenienced and forced to search out alternatives that would offer the same security and entertainment schools did.
On June 11, the fears of British Columbian parents were confirmed. Once again, a clear majority (86%) of the teachers in the BC school system voted to heighten the job action to a full strike after an announcement made by the Liberal government in power threatened to decrease their already unsatisfactory wages. The government’s decision to cut wages proved to be unwise, as teachers left their classrooms to commit to striking full-time. Subsequently, the school year ended earlier than planned, leading to the start of an uncertain summer vacation. The date that schools would open again was left unconfirmed, as it was unclear when the teachers would return.
The strike gained extensive media coverage, but not because it had set a precedent. In fact teachers in BC had been on uneasy terms with the provincial government even in the 1980s, when the Social Credit Party attempted to make changes to the teacher’s union (the BCTF) which resulted in a walkout of over 300 000 education personnel. However, the strike was unique in that it had a visible impact on people of all age groups, most notably the students in their last year of secondary school. While the strike may have seemed like a blessing to the younger pupils, it was a curse for the ones with post-secondary education applications on the horizon. Report cards, essential factors in determining a student’s acceptance to the school of their choice, remained unconfirmed and more often than not, were an inaccurate representation of the student’s achievements in the classroom as the teachers had limited scope to grade assignments in the midst of the job action restrictions. The University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University, two prominent post-secondary institutions in the province, resorted to assessing marks achieved in Grade 11 classes to compensate for the lack of marks available for students’ senior year, which became a disadvantage for the students who did comparably worse in their 11th year than they did in their 12th year.
The strike ended on September 18, 2014; after weeks of negotiating with a mediator, Vince Ready, a deal was reached that 86% of the union members approved of. To the relief of parents in BC, schools were re-opened the following Monday. Although the school year began 16 days later than planned, there was no more anxiety as teachers were back in the classrooms and school boards were updating the schedules for the school year. The strike served as a painful, yet memorable, learning process for the province as a reminder that such a public crisis cannot not be repeated.