If you are a teacher's union, the end of the school year is about the worst possible time to play your trump card of going on a full strike. To begin with, although you leave parents scrambling around, it is only a two week inconvenience. Summer was coming anyway and people were already organized with camps, family holidays and childcare arrangements. They simply had to move up their plans or make some short-term adjustments to their work schedules. Contrast that with an open-ended disruption in service in September or October. No alternatives, and no end in sight mean that parents and caregivers put far more pressure on government to end things sooner rather than later. Not so now. As of Monday, the teachers' strike will drop out of the headlines and, short of a settlement, will not reappear until late August. The BCTF has effectively given the government two months of breathing space.
Secondly, the union entered the strike apparently unprepared to manage it. Much like Pauline Marois in Quebec or Andrea Horwath in Ontario, the BCTF precipitated a crisis for its members without really thinking through the consequences. For example, who triggers a strike with a virtually empty strike fund? This is a pretty cavalier attitude towards the well-being of its hard-working and dues-paying membership. They were sent off into the summer missing a chunk of their income with no immediate prospect that their money will be there in September. It is a sign of the seriousness of this situation that has put the issue of a "signing bonus" as a sticking point in the negotiations. The union is scrambling to have the government pay teachers back the money that their leadership lost for them. In addition, although there has been a torrent of moving and meaningful comments by teachers and parents on social media about their frustration and sadness at the way things have worked out, the union (and the government) have continued to post and re-post the same tired old tweets. I for one am sick of seeing both the BCTF negative funding bar graph (we get it folks!) and the government's weird "earth and moon" sustainability graphic (I hope that no-one got paid for designing that one!). If you want to sway public opinion, you need to have a sequential, progressive campaign strategy, not just be a one-trick pony!
Finally, as everyone knows, no matter what the spin, the real issues centre around salary and working conditions. Behind closed doors, in all my years of teacher contract negotiations, on both sides of the table, I have never heard either side refer to the quality of education, or of the needs of students, except in financial terms. "Class size and composition" means more jobs and better working conditions to one side, and higher costs with fewer efficiencies and lower productivity to the other. There are no principles at play here. As anyone who has sat behind those closed doors will tell you, it is all about spreadsheets and budgets, the rest is rhetoric.
So, the question that you have to ask yourself is, what leverage did the BCTF think that it had to deciding to pull the plug in mid-June?
One elementary teacher friend of mine told me that she felt that it was secondary teacher driven. Their year was virtually over anyway with only exams left to proctor and mark. There was a general perception (misguided as it turned out) that the spectre of cancelling provincial exams - which were eliminated altogether in 1967 in Ontario without a ripple - would galvanize the government to action. That pretty much fizzled out and a watered down version went ahead as planned. The other sabre - being rattled this weekend - is the shutting down of summer school. If there was any indication that this job action is not really about kids, that might be the clearest one. The future of the most vulnerable and at-risk students in the province is being played as the final bargaining chip. It is a sad commentary on how far we have sunk.
It is my hope that with summer, the twitter war will cool off and the two sides can quietly hammer out a deal. No-one should be so naive as to think that the philosophic issues being debated in public will be resolved at the bargaining table but maybe some kind of agreement can be reached that will allow teachers and parents to have a few years of labour peace when they can focus back on the business of teaching and learning.
The unfortunate and mostly unintended consequence of all of the heated debate about the quality of education in British Columbia over the last six months has been to severely undercut parental confidence in the ability of the public education system to meet the needs of their child. Whatever happens at the bargaining table, or through the courts, it will be years before any of the staffing issues so central to the social media campaign can be effectively addressed. In the meantime, the message from our teachers and their union leadership is that students are being poorly served in our classrooms. That more than anything else will cloud perceptions of the quality of our public education system for years to come.
Just another victim in this all too toxic dispute.