As this article is being written, BC schools remain empty even though the first day of school was supposed to have arrived for thousands of students. The province’s 40,000 teachers remain on strike, locked out, or both, depending on whom you ask.  The provincially-appointed mediator, Vince Ready, walked out on negotiations over the weekend claiming that the sides were “too far apart”. With no end in sight to the dispute, it is clear that the BC government has no interest in negotiating and is looking to hammer teachers.

The BC Liberal government likes to portray this dispute as the result of a greedy teachers’ union, wanting more money. There’s nothing wrong with teachers fighting for higher pay, especially as salaries have not kept up with the rising cost of living. However, this dispute has never been about money. Instead, it has revolved around the workplace conditions faced by teachers in the province. With victories such as the 40-hour work week, maternity leave, and workplace safety standards, the history of the labour movement has been a history of fighting for better working conditions. It is the heart of collective bargaining.

Yet, the government has refused to allow teachers’ working conditions — and learning conditions for students — to come to the bargaining table. The government’s negotiators have made it very clear to the BC Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) that class size, class composition, and the existence of support staff are not up for negotiation. These are all key elements of workplace conditions for teachers. The larger the class size, the more children with special needs, the more papers to mark, the more children in need of one-on-one attention, the more difficult the job becomes. And teaching has always been a very difficult job with long, stressful hours, even before recent cuts. We shouldn’t be fooled by the government’s insinuations otherwise.

BC teachers have been in the government’s crosshairs for over a decade. In 2002, the newly elected Liberal government of Gordon Campbell passed Bills 27 and 28, which gutted a significant portion of the existing collective bargaining agreement between the government and the BCTF. The following provisions had all been a part of the negotiated agreement: class size maximums, class composition guidelines, support for integration of special needs students, staffing levels, the length of the school day, and hours of instruction in a school year. All these provisions and more were eliminated with the swipe of a pen. This was not a response to a strike. The teachers did nothing to provoke the reaction. Gordon Campbell’s newly elected government passed this legislation as a pre-emptive measure, sending a message to teachers (and the rest of the labour movement) of what to expect.

Bills 27 and 28 did not just gut the existing contract; they also banned any future negotiation of clauses in any of these areas. The BC government hoped to force negotiation of workplace conditions off of the bargaining table on a permanent basis.

As we explained in our 2012 article, “Support BC teachers: Bill 22 is a threat to collective bargaining for all unions”, these bills were in defiance of all laws regarding the right to collective bargaining. They were illegal. The BCTF challenged them at the Supreme Court, and after a trial lasting nine years, they won. In April 2011, the court struck down the bills. “While not a perfect tool, collective bargaining has long been seen as the best vehicle for resolving differences between management and labour,” said the presiding judge, as part of her deliberation. “Giving workers a voice in the process of determining their working conditions, even where they are not substantially successful in advancing their position, is regarded as a means of increasing stability in the workplace.”

The Liberals responded by ignoring the court’s ruling. They had been given a year to reverse Bills 27 and 28, and, after dragging their heels as long as possible, they chose to replace them with the new Bill 22, which did exactly the same thing as the original illegal bills, as if they had never been ruled illegal in the first place. The only change was to place a time-limit on the negotiation ban. Subsequently, the BCTF also challenged the legality of Bill 22.

This time, it didn’t take anywhere close to nine years to reach a ruling. In January 2014, the B.C. Supreme Court issued its decision and ruled that Bill 22 was “virtually identical” to Bill 28. “This means that the legislatively deleted terms in the teachers’ collective agreement have been restored retroactively and can also be the subject of future bargaining,” the judgment said. It went on to award the BCTF $2-million in damages for the government’s failure to respect the previous decision.

Still, the government openly defies its own courts. The Liberals have appealed the Bill 22 verdict, and are proceeding as if it never happened. Let’s be clear — this case is as cut and dry as they come. There is no chance that the appeal will succeed. The Liberal government is acting as though it is above the law. And the system is set up in such a way that it can be. Austerity measures have been implemented, public services attacked, and living standards slashed in order to prop up a failing economic system. Under capitalism, the rich must get richer and the rest of us have to make whichever sacrifices are deemed necessary to make sure that happens, even if it means ignoring their own laws — a sharp lesson to labour leaders who believe that the courts will defend workers’ rights.

From the point of view of the Liberal Party, eliminating the BCTF’s collective bargaining agreement was a prerequisite for the intense budget cuts they’ve been pushing ever since. Already, BC has the highest number of students per educator of any province in the country, but that isn’t enough for the Liberals. Funding for K-12 schools continues to decline when measured against inflation, the provincial budget, or the economy as a whole. As a result of the belt-tightening, positions continue to be cut and the workload faced by teachers continues to increase. Earlier this spring, estimates were released about the jobs that would have to be cut from school boards around the province. Here are some of the numbers, according to the Vancouver Sun:

Coquitlam faces a $13.4-million shortfall in a budget of approximately $270-million, and will be forced to cut 163 positions, including 103 teachers, 22 support staff, 34 special education assistants, and four school administrators.

Vancouver faces a $12.34-million shortfall in a budget of approximately $500-million. They are considering cutting 70 full-time positions, eliminating continuing adult education, and eliminating band programs in elementary schools, among other cuts.

Nanaimo faces a $5.4-million shortfall in a budget of approximately $115.8-million. They plan to cut 44 full-time jobs, including 19 teachers and 25 support staff.

Those are just a few of the most extreme examples. Every school board in the province is facing a budget shortfall, and every school board must cut jobs. The above figures refer to this year alone. They don’t take into account the cuts that have already occurred in the twelve years since the passing of Bill 28 – cuts which have seen B.C. fall from one of the highest levels of funding in the country to the second lowest level of funding per student, higher than only Prince Edward Island.

These cuts and attacks on public education disproportionately affect the working class. The wealthy send their kids to the province’s private school system, which also receives public funding. In stark contrast to the public school system, BC’s private schools have received a 45.6% increase in funding since 2005. Not surprisingly, private school enrolment has risen from 4.3% of the province’s students in the late 1970s to roughly 12% today.

The government would like us to believe that working conditions are not affected by layoffs. They try to convince us that collective bargaining applies only to wages. They need us to believe these things in order to provide a framework for austerity. The cuts made to public education would have been impossible without first breaking the union’s ability to negotiate.

Across the country and around the world, cuts to public services have been a defining feature of our times. This is the era of austerity and the era of falling living standards. The education system is a huge component of our society and our economy, and has been subject to these universal cuts. The period between kindergarten and grade 12 makes up roughly one sixth of our lifespan. Such a prominent public service cannot be an exception.

Governments everywhere want to reverse the gains made by the labour movement over the last century of struggle, one step at a time. In British Columbia, the Liberal Party is gambling that the working class will allow them to take each step without a fight. This year, the goal is to break the BCTF’s right to bargain. If they succeed, the new normal will be an acceptance that bargaining rights can be taken away at any time. A major obstacle will be cleared from their path, strengthening their position for the next round of attacks and austerity. That is why a line in the sand must be drawn here and now. Collective bargaining is not something that the labour movement or the people of British Columbia can afford to lose.

This struggle must involve more than just teachers. A loss now will have dire consequences for all of us. The highest power in the land is neither the scheming government nor the impotent courts. True power lies in the hands of the working class, without whom, society would grind to a halt. It’s time to flex that muscle.