By: Michael Geoghegan
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light
Several days before teachers walked off the job on October 7th I interviewed a Victoria area teacher to get her perspective on why teachers seemed so determined to force a show down with the provincial government over the issue of wage increases. Although she wished to remain anonymous, it certainly helped me both as a parent and as a political consultant understand why this matter is finally coming to a head.
Let me begin with a disclaimer. My father Anthony Geoghegan, who passed away 18 years ago, was a highschool teacher and was active in both the BC Teachers Federation and prior to that the Manitoba Teachers Federation. As a teenager and young adult I was able to see first hand some of the dysfunctionalities that plagued the BCTF and, in my opinion, have only grown worse over time.
Back in 1990 during the last days of the Socred Administration teachers took job action around working conditions. Limits on class sizes were put in place and special needs students, i.e. those with severe physical or mental disabilities were limited to no more than two per classroom.
Then through both NDP and Liberal administrations, limits on class sizes were generally relaxed. Now I for one do not think it is a big deal if children end up having class sizes increase from 20 students to 30. However I do think it is a very big deal if the number of special needs students increases in any given class from two to five. I am even more concerned when not all of these special needs students do not have their own teaching assistant.
Without these assistants the special needs children are learning little if anything and if the teacher is having to spend much of her time dealing with special needs children that means the rest of the class isn’t learning much either. So clearly if we are going to integrate physically and mentally handicapped children into mainstream school settings there needs to be proper resources allocated towards this.
So why aren’t the teachers making this a front and center issue this time around? Because they figure that as classroom situations continue to deteriorate that sooner or later the parents will start squawking and if enough of us do then Victoria will take care of the problem by providing more funding for teaching assistants.
So why are the teachers so focused on wage increases this time around? Well first of all let’s keep in mind that when the Campbell government was first elected it carried out its election promise of providing an extra $1 billion in funding to health care. Much of this increase ended up in the pockets of nurses and doctors who received significant wage and fee increases. There was no similar windfall for Education, although as is the case with Health, the amount the province spends on education has increased year after year.
So unlike nurses and doctors, teachers did not see significant wage increases and in fact in the latest round of failed bargaining negotiations, the province if offering teachers a three year contract where they will receive no wage increase over that time period.
Now this is where we get down to the crux of the issue. At the end of that three-year 0,0 and 0 contract, a teacher in BC with 30 years experience would be making $53,000 per year while a teacher in oil rich Alberta would be making $71,000 per year.
Then note that if a teacher is 60 years old and has been teaching for 30 years then they will receive an annual pension that is 70% of their annual salary and that their annual salary is determined as being the average of their top five years of income.
One only has to visit the nearest school to note that many of the teachers there are aging baby boomers that are fast reaching their retirement years. 70% of $53,000 is only $37,100 per year, which is just over $3,000 per month retirement income. 70% of $71,000 is $49,700, which is over $4,000 per month retirement income. Now you know why so many of our aging teacher population here in BC are so determined to try and get a significant wage increase out of the BC government.
In this regard however, the BCTF has not done its membership any favours by becoming so closely aligned with the NDP. The BCTF openly campaigned on behalf of the NDP during the last provincial election and a former BCTF President, David Chudnovsky, even got himself elected as an NDP MLA.
It has created a no win situation for the BCTF, where their concerns, legitimate or otherwise, are dismissed as political posturing on behalf of the NDP, the Liberal government rightly regards the BCTF as being political opponents, while the NDP is forced to straddle the political fence lest they end up portraying themselves as the political party that would simply open up taxpayers’ wallets to all their public sector union supporters.
It is for that reason that regardless of the outcome of this latest job action the BCTF should give some serious thought to restructuring itself into a more politically autonomous entity. Perhaps then provincial government negotiators, as well as the general public, might take their concerns a little more seriously.