Teaching in BC: profession or trade union?

Jan Drabek’s opinion article in The Vancouver Sun raised a number of critical issues related to teaching as currently organized in BC. Drabek characterizes the current organizational model as similar to a trades union. He also poses a critical question:

“Wouldn’t it be wise for teachers to at least explore the possibilities of re-organizing along the lines of these professions – architects, doctors, lawyers and even professional artists?”

The history in BC that addresses this question is disturbing. It suggests that the BCTF, from its command and control position in relation to teachers and education in BC, is not capable of working within a mature professional context. In fact, by its own admission, the BCTF systematically worked to ensure that professional self-regulation, as organized within other professions, would fail when teachers in BC were granted this opportunity. (Novakowski, 2010)

Mature established professions, medicine, law, engineering as examples, organized early to demand of governments that they recognize these areas of practice as self-regulating professions. Practitioners understood that their members required comprehensive knowledge within a discipline as well as the ability to use their knowledge in a practice that served members of the public.

In Canada, governments typically supported professional self-regulation. They recognize the specialized knowledge and specialized practice required of practitioners as well as the need for practitioners to be involved in certifying and regulating members of the profession. Mature professions take their self regulation responsibilities seriously, guard this professional obligation and ensure that their decisions as well as actions serve a public interest.

Within mature self-regulating professions regulatory functions are separated from political advocacy functions. For example, the Canadian Medical Association advocates for the political interests of the medical profession; the College of Physicians and Surgeons is the regulatory body responsible for certification, discipline and continuing professional education. In law, the Canadian Bar Association represents the political interests of lawyers; the Law Society regulates the profession with similar responsibilities as those specified for medicine.

What is the history related to teaching in BC? In 1987 government enacted the Teaching Profession Act. It granted to teachers the right to self-regulate through the BC College of Teachers. Teachers were given a gift. They were recognized as a profession. They were granted the rights and obligations of other mature self-regulating professions.

The BCTF responded forcefully and negatively to this gift. It was seen as a threat to the BCTF ability to command and to control teaching and education within BC. Ken Novakowski in the September 2010 issue of Teacher summed up the BCTF response succinctly: “After debating the merits of boycotting the college or participating in the college to limit its scope of activity (emphasis added) the BCTF decided on the latter.”

15 of 20 (75%) of the members of College Council were endorsed by the BCTF. These endorsed Councilors understood their role to “mitigate the negative aspects” of the college “and to stem its growth and cost to members” (Novakowski 2010). These endorsed Councilors also met with BCTF executive before each Council meeting to ensure that BCTF interests were paramount in all business of the College.

In 2003, after 15 years of attempting to self-regulate in the face of BCTF organized resistance and interference, government intervened and appointed 20 Councilors – a completely new Council. It is ironic that Novakwoski describes these appointments “as political hacks” and fails to acknowledge that the previous BCTF endorsed and elected Councilors whom the appointees replaced were “political hacks” for the BCTF.

In fact, a majority of appointees to this “Interim Council” comprised recognized and professional educators from across the province. A minority were appointed on the recommendation education partner groups such as those representing trustees, parents, Aboriginal educators and Faculties of Education.

Between 2003 and 2010, the BC College of Teachers continued to exist. Council went back to 15 BCTF endorsed and elected members and 5 appointed members. By 2008 at least 2 of BCTF elected members began seriously to question whether the BCTF campaign of resistance was consistent with the Oath of Office required of Councilors. This Oath necessitated “acting in the public interest”. They also seriously questioned the BCTF rhetoric asserting that “the interests of the BCTF as the teacher’s union are the same as with the public interest”.

The BCTF continued its active and relentless campaign to limit the ability of the College to self-regulate in the public interest. Finally, at the request of the then Chair of Council, the Registrar and the appointed Councilors government appointed Don Avison to review the College. In January 2012 the Teaching Profession Act was replaced by the Teachers Act. The BC College of Teachers was replaced by the Teacher Regulation Branch of the Ministry of Education. Teachers effectively lost their opportunity to claim status as a profession and to self-regulate.

The BCTF permits no interference with its assumed mandate to control teachers and public education in BC. Unlike the nursing profession which is able to separate the role of its union from the role of its professional regulatory body, the BCTF continues to view a professional self-regulatory body as well as all education partner groups as its competitors in the sector. Just as they have been largely incapable of bargaining without being legislated back to work, they have been equally incapable of working positively to achieve mature professional status for their members.

– post by Carol Gibson

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  • Ken Halliday

    I bargained on behalf of School Districts and BCPSEA over a 10 year period. I bargained for many other employers in both the public and private sectors and their unions. What became clear to me was that the BCTF is so powerful and paranoid that the only way it will change is by internal revolt. That will not occur until the BCTF does something that infuriates a large number of their members. Even then, it will take a lot of courage for dissident members to mount a campaign against the entrenched BCTF elites. Remember most union members were required to join and most do not want to be or need to be involved in union affairs. This works well in most unions but it plays into the hands of the BCTF elites who still operate on the zero sum basis. That is, if they are not winning they must be losing. Most other union (and some employers) "grew up" years ago and recognized the employer-employee relationship was much more sophisticated than the childlike view the BCTF has internalized in all it dealings with its employers and outside groups, including parents.

    • Max

      @Ken Halliday:

      I find your comment interesting. We all hear, well after the fact, that X % of the ‘union members’ voted for ‘strike’ (example) based on the number of teaching ‘union’ members that show up for the vote.

      It leaves me to believe that there is almost an equal number of ‘union members’ that do not support or are apathetic to the cause.

      Maybe those members do want change.

      Sad thing is,unionism is like ‘religion’ you have those that are on the fringe – believing and supporting a little, and those that are ALL in, plus. And as they say, they squeaky wheel gets the grease.

    • gman

      Ken I think the difference between private and public sector unions is that private sector unions realize its like the parasite killing the host,if they demand too much the host will either go bankrupt or move offshore.But with public sector unions, we are the host and we have no where to go.I don’t believe the majority of teachers agree with their unions stance on things like report cards,they spend every day looking at those proud little faces and I cant imagine they would deprive our children of what we all want for them.Their being bullied by their union and I hope they take their union back.

  • Carol Gibson

    gman I too hope that BCTF members – all of them – will take their union back.

    As a trustee, I was careful to distinguish the “leadership of the union”, from the “members of the union”. I observed far too many teachers who were dedicated to their work and to the children to do otherwise. However, I also observed an expanded form of BCTF influence and intimidation that requires courage, as Ken suggests, not just from teachers, but across the entire public education sector.

    For example, the BCTF endorses trustees during civic elections. In the trustee’s association (BCSTA) these “endorsed” trustees ensure that the BCTF agenda informs motions from BCSTA to government. BCTF endorsed trustees also, in many cases, form a majority on School Boards across the province. With this type of majority on Boards, the Superintendents also walk a fine line. They serve “at the pleasure of their Board”.

    Principals have faced union organized “votes of non-confidence” within schools that can destroy careers. Union members also participate on administrator hiring committees and exercise influence that can sideline careers of even nationally recognized administrators.

    Union members are not the only one’s being bullied. The intimidation and influence affects all partner education groups and the public at large. We all require courage and the will to take back public education.

    I respect the right to bargain, but not an assumed right to control an entire sector in the interests of a union.

    • Bill

      This is an issue of individual rights and teachers should not be required to “take back” their union in order to enjoy their rights. It is up to the government to restore those rights by making membership in the BCTF optional and not mandatory. There is absolutely no justification for closed shops other than to entrench the power of the union executive.

  • Norm Nichols

    Thank you Carol for reminding your readers that there are many teachers who do not perceive a need for there to be any conflict between “teacher professionalism” and “teacher trade unionism.” Unfortunately our union leaders have never been able to come grips with that reality. It would only take a brief conversation with the nurses to recognize the possibility

  • R.Isaak

    A few questions for the easily amused, Now that the BCTF has taken volunteerism away from their members. I only wonder if the children of these very folks will stop playing sports or will they in fact go against the BCTF and play when the coaches are parents or concerned volunteers?

    I will be contacting the principal of my Grandkids school (I know he hates the BCTF) to find out if I can run a few more sports teams for the kids (I already run one team). I also know that there are 7 other raging Grandparents ready to assist me.

    The teachers are right, it’s not about the money, it’s about control of the entire education system. The teachers need to realize the general public is somewhat sick of this perpetual tug of war. The war in the media is being lost, Ms.Lambert with her smug attitude (how long til she becomes an NDP candidate?) is further damaging the brand for the BCTF.

    Education is a public right, the act of extorting the public while being paid to serve the public is akin to treason. If the job is that bad, find a real one without the militant union to tell you how incredible they think you are.