Why has Vancouver’s ‘progressive’ Mayor been so quiet about the BC teachers’ strike?

Instead of going to back-to-school this month, BC students and parents are getting a lesson in class struggle. They are the collateral damage of Premier Christy Clark’s BC Liberal government and their ideological vendetta against BC teachers and their union.

This past week, the BCTF showed itself remarkably willing to compromise, while the BC government and their negotiators remain intractable, thus far refusing the union’s offer to put the marathon dispute to binding arbitration.

As I’ve written about before in this space, the current fight stems back all the way to 2002, when then Education Minister Clark imposed legislation on teachers that stripped them of their right to bargain class sizes. BC Supreme Court rulings have excoriated the Liberals and vindicated the BCTF, and yet the government has chosen to appeal those cases and play hardball with the union.

Despite a vast PR campaign which has included straight up misinformation from Premier Clark herself – she falsely claimed last week that teachers were demanding “unlimited massage” benefits – BC teachers have retained widespread public support. You can see evidence of this on social media, on picket lines and at rallies across the province this week. Last Friday in Vancouver, for example, thousands came out to support teachers at a spirited rally in front of Canada Place, organized by the BC Federation of Labour.

This is the sharpest political polarization we’ve seen in the year and half since Clark’s shocking 2013 election win . Given her conduct in this battle with teachers – equal parts aloof and mean-spirited, the Premier broke a long summer silence on the eve of Labour Day by effectively trolling teachers on Twitter – one would hope that at least some BC Liberal voters are having buyer’s remorse.

Bob Rennie with Premier Christy Clark | Photo courtesy of the Government of British Columbia

Bob Rennie with Premier Christy Clark | Photo courtesy of the Government of British Columbia

This fall’s municipal elections will be a key opportunity to galvanize opposition to the Clark government across BC. After all, in the Canadian system, municipal governance is under the control of the provinces; cities and towns in BC actually have little room or budget to maneuver on most issues, depending on decisions from Victoria. Local governments are often forced to do the dirty work after decisions are made provincially. That certainly is the case with school boards, who are often forced to implement cuts based on Victoria’s budget decisions.

This division of powers makes it all the more important to discuss and debate provincial issues during municipal election campaigns. With city elections two months away, all candidates should answer the simple question about the BC teachers’ strike: which side are you on?

The most high profile mayor in the province, Vancouver’s Gregor Robertson, doesn’t seem to have clearly answered this question. In fact he has been conspicuously quiet, maintaining complete silence on social media and in conventional media – as far as I can discern.

In a Labour Day message on Twitter, with the whole province focused on whether schools would open the next day, Mayor Robertson singled out some workers but made no mention of teachers: “give thanks to our VPD, Fire, Libraries, inside/outside civic union workers – who serve our city so well!”

Robertson’s avoidance of the fight between the BCTF and the Clark government is actually not out of character. Despite being a former BC NDP MLA, Robertson has for the most part carefully stayed out of the provincial fray. One of the more flagrant exceptions was a comment just before the 2009 provincial election that seemed to imply support for Gordon Campbell, when he joked that the then BC Liberal Premier was going for a “three peat,” building on his three terms as Mayor of Vancouver where Robertson said Campbell left a “legacy of good decisions we have enjoyed and continue to build on.”

That rhetorical flourish aside, the reason Mayor Robertson has been so muted in criticizing the BC Liberals is likely structural. His party, Vision Vancouver, is heavy on NDP organizers and former candidates, but it also has a number of Liberal staff members and, most importantly, financial backers.

The lynchpin here could be Bob Rennie, the notorious and ubiquitous Vancouver condo salesman. He’s both a big backer of Vision Vancouver and a key fundraiser and political supporter for Christy Clark and the BC Liberals.

There’s a new factor in the upcoming Vancouver election that may force more polarization between Vancouver’s municipal politicians and the provincial government. COPE – decimated after a dozen years of splits including the departure of the group that formed Vision Vancouver – is running a mayoral candidate for the first time since 2002. Meena Wong, a former NDP candidate, won the party’s nomination on Sunday, September 7.

Maybe having a clearly left opponent in the race may force Robertson off the fence vis-a-vis the teachers situation and other crucial issues. Who wants to vote for a “centre left” mayor who can’t even speak up for public education against a mean-spirited right-wing premier?

With COPE back in the game, and the NPA seemingly planning a less sharply right-wing campaign fronted by Kirk Lapointe, progressive voters might just decide Robertson is unworthy of his own “three peat” this November.

3 thoughts on “Why has Vancouver’s ‘progressive’ Mayor been so quiet about the BC teachers’ strike?

  1. Robertson also has an extremely capable and highly vocal School Board Chair who is doing all the heavy lifting on this issue. I don’t think there is a more vocal opponent (outside of the TF’s Jim Iker) of the government on this issue than Patti Bacchus.

  2. Robertson may realize that the BCTF has made a massive slew of poor strategic errors, from the complete splurging of the strike fund on anti-Liberal advertising during that past election (on the losing horse), so that the union now cannot even pay its own members that have voted to strike (many, and more now, reluctantly). The union also angered and upset students by striking just before the last years’ end, disrupting the closing days of the school year. The union also entered into a confrontational position over a year ago when it demanded ridiculous benefits that it gradually has withdrawn. (What were those demands for in the first place if they quickly withdrew them? Publicity? Difficult to comprehend. Are theses amateurs or angry old men?

    One correction Derrick, the problem goes back past 2002, to 1998 when the outgoing Glen Clark’s NDP government gave the BCTF new and outrageous powers, knowing well that the incoming Liberals would have to curtail those powers later.

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