Back in September 2005, 15-year-old Zachary Crispin reaped a first-rate labour education—but not in school. He’d already spent the summer picketing in his hometown of Trail, B.C., supporting his parents’ fight (with United Steelworkers Local 480) against the town’s biggest employer, Teck Cominco. Then another picket line sprang up in town when his teachers struck for two weeks. He brought them coffee and doughnuts—as did many of his fellow students.
In other parts of B.C., some parents and students lashed out at the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation’s striking teachers for compromising classroom time. But Crispin, now 21, says that in Trail, almost everyone understood the teachers’ actions.
“It’s a union town,” he told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview from the Vancouver office of the B.C. branch of the Canadian Federation of Students, where he’s been chairperson since being elected in May. “They understood what the teachers were doing because we’d all seen it in our younger lives [when Cominco workers went on strike in 1972, 1974, 1987, and 2005]. Many of the students had walked picket lines before, attended union meetings with their parents, and they know what the function of a union is.”
In high school, though, Crispin says, labour history was absent from the curriculum.
As the BCTF prepares for another job action this September, that hasn’t changed. Labour history—even general information about the purpose of the labour movement—is still missing from B.C. classrooms.
That lack of knowledge could set teachers up for a new, harder lashing. Since that 2005 BCTF strike, media and think tanks have demonized teachers’ unions, not only in B.C. but throughout North America.
South of the border, the documentary Waiting for “Superman” (2010) brought the movement against teachers’ unions into focus. Davis Guggenheim, who earned some lefty cred with the blockbuster An Inconvenient Truth, won the audience award at the Sundance Film Festival for Waiting for “Superman”. The film opens with a conflicted Guggenheim driving past three public elementary schools and guiltily bringing his own children to a private school. He argues that teachers’ unions block improvements to the public system and contribute to creating generations of illiteracy and poverty in inner cities. The film spawned a vicious anti-teachers’-unions website.
The film, and 2011’s internationally reported labour standoff in Wisconsin, also spawned a pro-union resistance movement: Save Our Schools. On July 30, 8,000 teachers and parents marched on Washington, D.C., arguing that unions fight for students, not against them.
Locally, the Fraser Institute published a column on the BCBusiness magazine website on August 2 called “B.C. teachers need a reality check on wages and benefits”. The column argued in favour of merit pay and also implied that teachers’ unions block improvements to education. The institute’s annual school rankings and push for so-called charter schools have long rankled public-school advocates.
B.C. also boasts a pro teachers’-union movement, which includes the British Columbia Society for Public Education and APPLE BC. But the discussion here is subtle compared to the screaming in the U.S.
How prepared are teens—who may be affected by the BCTF’s upcoming job action—to wade through the rhetoric?
Few students arrive in history professor Mark Leier’s Simon Fraser University classes with much knowledge of unions. “My sense is that youth know less about unions than 30 years ago,” the former dean of SFU’s labour-studies department told the Straight by phone. “There’s certainly a lot more that could and should be done to understand work and unions in our society. It’s fundamental. We work eight hours a day, but we’re not taught much about it.”
Leier said the fault lies across the board. Some unions, he said, turn off youth by accepting tiered contracts, which leaves new workers earning little next to their better-paid coworkers. Newspapers underreport on labour issues, compared with 30 and 40 years ago. And the labour movement is generally less energized than a generation ago; there are fewer strikes and fewer unionized workers (according to Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, fewer than 30 percent of Canadian workers now belong to a union, the lowest number in a generation), and they’re less mouthy, he said.
“They’re more interested in being respectable than fighting,” Leier said, explaining why some students don’t pay attention to the labour movement.
Freshly back from the SOS rally in Washington, BCTF second vice president Glen Hansman agreed that more labour education is needed in B.C. classrooms. But he said it shouldn’t come from the union itself in order to avoid appearing self-promoting.
Inspired by the heated resistance to the American anti-union movement, he’s concerned that Canadians are not as vocal about defending labour rights. “In B.C., there’s a generally lowered set of expectations,” he said. “There seems to be a resignation that, yes, real estate is out of control, and we may not be able to have the same standard of living as our parents did or provide our kids with the same opportunities. For some reason, people here seem to think that’s okay.”
Here, he said, he’s heard that French immersion has become an unofficial charter-school system. Some parents avoid classrooms dense with special-needs and English-as-a-second-language students by registering them in French, he said, instead of fighting alongside the union for smaller class sizes and properly funded assistance for language and other needs.
Now, Hansman said, is the time for parents and students to have that fight. The balance of power in the legislative assembly has tipped, meaning that the Liberals must listen to opposition in a way they didn’t have to when the BCTF collective agreement was stripped in 2001, he said.
The CFS’s Crispin agrees. Instead of slamming the union or feeling impatient with possible BCTF job-action inconveniences, Crispin said, teens should fight alongside their teachers.
“I think students should know the job action will improve their education, and the key is if B.C. sits down with the teachers and negotiates a fair agreement,” Crispin said.
Given the anti teachers-union hullabaloo in the U.S., this is a highly teachable moment—even if that teaching happens outside the classroom.