Teachers, not tankers: On Christy Clark’s misplaced priorities

Photo by Brent Granbywh

Photo by Brent Granbywh

Christy Clark loves to do photo-ops wearing a hard hat. That was basically her uniform on the campaign trail last year. It was meant to symbolize her commitment to jobs, as she touted the “trillion dollar” bonanza that B.C. would reap from expanding Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) exports.

If only Premier Clark were as committed to and respectful of actual workers in this province as she is to imaginary future workers in this one sector of the economy. (Worth noting: Clark’s estimates of the potential of LNG to create jobs seem as wildly overstated as her projections for the climate change causing emissions of this new Gas Rush are understated.)

Clark and the BC Liberals’ misplaced priorities have been on full display of late. Last week, Clark was a featured speaker at a three-day LNG industry conference in downtown Vancouver. Meanwhile, her government was busy antagonizing BC teachers, causing disruption and uncertainty for education workers, parents and students – all this just as exam and graduation time approaches.

Last week, talks between the government negotiator and the BC Teachers Federation (BCTF) broke down. After teachers announced limited job action, the employer retaliated by announcing a partial lockout and threatening a wider lockout in June.

BCTF President Jim Iker, who has maintained a remarkably calm demeanour throughout this labour dispute, shot back at the government’s actions:

“Premier Clark just yesterday said children should not be put in the middle, yet she is imposing significant disruptions to the education system. We’ve already heard from secondary school teachers that they will be locked out on the day their students graduate. Is putting Grade 12 graduation on the chopping block Christy Clark’s definition of families first? Christy Clark’s lockout will mean teachers would be insubordinate if they helped a struggling student or a child with special needs during the lunch hour.”

Even media pundits hostile to the BCTF – and they are legion in this province – have to concede that the Clark government is playing hardball here. They’re not acting like they actually want to resolve this dispute; they’re acting like they wouldn’t mind a protracted public fight with BC teachers.

We’ve seen this movie before. In fact, the film’s director hasn’t really changed over the years. Christy Clark was the Education Minister back in 2002–2004, when the BC Liberals brought in Bills 27 and 28, stripping teachers’ collective agreements of issues like class size and composition. The BCTF has spent a decade fighting this, and the Supreme Court has ruled in their favour, stating that the Liberals’ actions were unconstitutional. In the latest ruling, BC Supreme Court Justice Griffin eviscerated Christy Clark’s government for violating the freedom of association of teachers.

Christy Clark needs to be taught a lesson – again. In 2005, BC teachers pushed back against this same government, when their “illegal” strike action gained widespread public support and major labour solidarity. The teachers have been vindicated time and again; it’s the government that has been violating the highest law of the land with their unconstitutional actions.

We need to unite behind teachers once more. Think of it as a teachable moment for how to deal with a bully. Students are learning the hard way about the importance of solidarity; some have even responded by organizing rallies for their teachers.

Rather than letting the bully divide and rule us, we should unite and make connections between different issues. Last Friday, a rally was held outside the LNG corporate-government love-in, to protest expanded fracking in the province and to stand in solidarity with those in Northern BC, who are determined to protect their environment and communities against the Big Oil and Gas juggernaut. The highlight of this demonstration, for me, was the moment one of the speakers saw teachers in the crowd with their BCTF flags and gave them a shoutout. The crowd responded with big applause.

Before I decided to eke out a living as a writer and editor, I worked briefly as a teacher. Before that, in my late teens and twenties, I worked myriad industrial jobs. Sometimes I wore a hard hat to work, punching the clock at places like the now closed Nalley’s potato chip factory, the Grimm’s meatpacking plant, the Great Canadian Box Factory, and many other industrial workplaces. It was all hard work, but I’d have to say that nothing I experienced compared to the overall demands of teaching. The challenge of managing a classroom. The effort it takes to keep a distracted generation interested. The workday that creeps into evenings and weekends with marking and prep work. The burden of responsibility for all those young people’s intellectual development and physical well-being.

Not all workers wear hard hats, but all workers deserve respect, and those who look after our kids for seven hours (plus extra-curricular hours) a day and help shape them socially and intellectually should be compensated adequately and well resourced so that they can excel at their vital jobs.

BC teachers deserve our full support. They should not have to walk this picket line alone.

Next week I will be back to municipal politics, with the promised article on the proposed Housing Authority for the City of Vancouver.