Classes back in session next week

It’s back to the classroom for Vernon School District teachers and students next week.

It’s back to the classroom for teachers and students next week.

But it’s not business as usual, as teachers across the province continue with phase one of the job action that began in September.

“We are not going to be giving strike notice at this point,” said Vernon Teachers’ Association president Bruce Cummings. “One of the reasons is that a lot of districts are starting their spring break next week, so the B.C. Teachers’ Federation executive said we don’t need to put the whole burden on the teachers who are still working.”

Teachers from around the province will have the opportunity to meet at the BCTF annual general meeting March 17 to 20, and the union is postponing decisions about future action until that time.

Teachers returned to the classroom Thursday, following three days of a province-wide strike to protest the government’s proposed back-to-work legislation, Bill 22.

With teachers holding  what they called “sticket” signs, they gathered outside schools and on downtown streets, handing out pamphlets and waving to passersby.

Cummings said one school took an unofficial data collection on the back of a sign and counted the number of honks and waves of support.

“We had 70 of those and on the other side, seven fingers, 12 thumbs down, one lip read and one yell and there were a few nasty things as well, a couple of truckers who used their trucks in an intimidating way, at people who were doing their democratic demonstration, but the overwhelming support was very gratifying, so we’re not done by any means in terms of getting our message out.”

Vernon School District superintendent Bev Rundell said there were few issues during the strike, with a number of secondary students showing up at school to work on projects.

“We even had some elementary students come in to the library and get books out,” she said. “We had no incidents, people were very respectful, and  we haven’t heard anything from parents, probably because they knew that this was going to happen and made some arrangements and now we’ll have to wait and see.”

Cummings said information will be sent home to parents, explaining teachers’ concerns over Bill 22 and the reasons for this week’s strike.

“Right now Bill 22 is the issue because it takes away some basic democratic rights that people have in a free society, with free collective bargaining and that’s a huge concern,” said Cummings. “I know people don’t agree with collective bargaining and feel it should be a free-for-all, but that doesn’t work for most people.

“If you look at benefits for people who are in unions, one of the things that stood out for me, in a study done by CUPE, was that the disparity between women and men in unions is way less; outside of unions, there are considerable differences; the teaching force is about 70 per cent women, so equity between men and women is one of those things that we’re concerned with.”

But Cummings added that it goes beyond that. Bill 22 has what teachers are calling sham mediation.

“The government says there’s mediation involved in Bill 22, but there isn’t, it’s taking their position and everybody has to agree to it, it’s just an abuse of power, and I’m really concerned,” he said. “Since when does government not listen at all; it’s really disheartening to have your government do this to you — it’s not government for the people.”

Cummings said teachers are frustrated at the lack of understanding over the issues and in the pamphlets the VTA is sending home, there is no discussion of wage.

“What the government doesn’t make clear in comparing wages between the provinces is that it looks at the wages of teachers in Category Four, those with four years of university, and comparing them to teachers with five years of university, and that is the vast majority of us and we are the maximum on the scale, so it’s comparing apples to apples and they’re not the same thing: 10 per cent of teachers in this province are Category Four, probably 80 per cent are Category Five.”

The issue of class size and composition is one that has been at the heart of the teachers’ job action, and it’s one that has been particularly discouraging for teachers, said Cummings.

According to the BCTF, there are 700 fewer special needs teachers in the province. The government claims that there are actually 2,100 special needs teaching assistants. But Cummings said what the government neglects to mention is that most of those are Certified Education Assistants (CEAs) not special education teachers.

“The CEAs mean well and this is not to take anything away from them, but most of our learning resource teachers have a master’s degree.

“So if you take a large class, the government solution is to add another CEA and if you’re in a room that’s overcrowded already and you add another adult and the teacher is supposed to manage the work of the CEA, you’ve added to the workload and you’ve diminished the service in some ways.”

Cummings said teachers are encouraging parents to make their voices heard, by writing to MLA Eric Foster, letters to the editor and school trustees, and updating Facebook status opposing Bill 22.

“We don’t know whether we can stop this bill or not, but we have to keep this up.”