Teachers’ strike delayed start of school in Cowichan

A long and bitter battle was fought in 2014 between the BC Teachers Federation and the provincial government, hitting home hardest in Cowichan when an all-out strike prevented students from going back to class in September.

It began back in February when Cowichan Valley public school teachers joined their colleagues province wide in taking a strike vote.

A lot was up in the air but although this BCTF action appeared to have arisen quickly, teachers had been bargaining with the province for well over a year, according to LCTA president Chris Rolls.

Once the BCTF took a strike vote, it had 90 days to activate it by taking job action and Cowichan Valley teachers started that on April 23.

Following a plan laid out by the BC Teachers Federation, they cut back outside supervision and communications with administrators but still prepared report cards and carried out other in-school duties.

The province’s Education Minister, Peter Fassbender, had accused the BCTF of not making any effort to bargain.

"It’s a little disappointing but not at all surprising," Fassbender said in a press release about the job action.

"Over the past few weeks, it appears the BCTF has been more focused on implementing its strike plan than bargaining at the table. The union hasn’t moved off its opening position of approximately 13.5 per cent increase over three years, nor has it withdrawn any of its many other monetary proposals."

But, accusations of lack of bargaining effort cuts two ways, Rolls said.

"We’re disappointed, too. We’re disappointed in the fact that they’re not offering anything, that they don’t appear to be bargaining in good faith. There’s a whole lot of stuff that isn’t being funded within schools," she said.

By late May, things were heating up as the school year wound down.

A bargaining breakdown between the Teachers’ Federation and the province pushed teachers onto the picket lines in rotating action that closed Cowichan Valley schools on May 29.

Naomi Nilsson, president of the Cowichan District Teachers Association, called the action Stage Two of the union’s recently voted on bargaining strategy.

"There has been no movement at the bargaining table on our key issue: class size and composition. It’s certainly our number one issue here in the Valley," she said.

It’s been a contentious subject.

"Both in 2011 and in 2014 Justice Griffin said, ‘Yup. You can bargain that at the table.’ The government is still saying no to that, which is a difficulty because it’s taken us 10 years to get where we are," said Nilsson.

Meanwhile, the Cowichan Valley school district asked parents to keep their school aged children at home on the day that Cowichan teachers took their part in the province-wide rotating strike.

Joe Rhodes, the district’s superintendent of schools, sent out a notice, saying, "While schools will remain open under the supervision of school district staff, we will be unable to provide students with any instruction. School buses will not be running. In the interest of student safety, we are requesting that parents keep their children at home on Thursday, May 29, 2014." Valley teachers were out again on a rotating strike June 3 and, with a full-scale shutdown of schools in the cards, they rallied outside the school district offices June 5 with speakers calling on the government to end what they called perpetual underfunding of many aspects of public education. All during the summer season – usually a busy time for the school district’s works crews – workers were able to get some schools that were not picketed cleaned up but much of the scheduled summer maintenance and all the summer groundskeeping was put on hold. Buses, too, had to wait to be inspected as they languished behind picket lines.

Just days away from the official start of the new school year, the striking Cowichan Valley public school teachers rallied along the Trans Canada Highway near Cowichan Secondary School.

According to Nilsson, the action was all part of a province-wide move to bring teachers’ issues back into the public eye as the strike, which had been ongoing since June, threatened to postpone the date when kids were supposed to be heading back into classrooms.

"This week all of our actions will pressure government to come to the table and get us a deal," Nilsson said.

Teachers were disheartened when they saw movement in bargaining by the BC Public School Employers’ Association negotiators negated by provincial government pull-backs, she added.

"Government needs to feel pressure. Cowichan teachers and all BCTF members all over the province need to be more visible. We also need our parents to start writing letters to MLAs because it isn’t just our fight alone. This is a fight for public education for our students," Nilsson said.

With September, students took to the streets opposite Cowichan Secondary School, crying "enough is enough" and urging teachers and the government to remember that for high school students important time was slipping away.

Finally, Cowichan Valley teachers joined colleagues around the province in voting Sept. 18 on a tentative six-year deal to end their months-long strike.

Rolls said that she received email notification of the prospective deal only two days before the vote.

"We can’t wait to get back in school. It was exciting that the media blackout [during negotiations] actually got to happen on all sides and they got to be left alone to get this done," she said.

Cowichan Valley public schools were set to open for a short day Sept. 22 with a full return the following day.

Premier Christy Clark praised all sides when she spoke to the media Tuesday afternoon.

"We have reached an historic six-year agreement. That means we have five years of labour peace ahead of us."

Clark said she thought reaching a settlement through negotiation "a remarkable achievement" after "years of dysfunction".