I can still picture it today. I was a young teacher, just in my second year of my career. I was sitting up in the bleachers in the Queen Elizabeth Secondary School gym in a packed emergency general meeting, hearing the impassioned speakers, understanding that we had to act, and knowing that we were together in our resolve-teachers and administrators alike.
That year, in line with other teacher arbitration awards, Surrey teachers were granted a 10% increase along with scale shortening in one category. Feeling some taxpayer pressure, the NDP government of the day asked school boards to find economies and the very conservative Surrey School Board did so by voting to increase class sizes and eliminate vice-principal positions.
After first meeting with trustees to no avail, the leadership of the STA Executive Committee quickly formulated a plan and brought it to the membership, and we voted to walk out the very next day and take our case directly to Victoria.
After the motion was passed in a very near unanimous vote, we were asked to check if anyone from our staff had not been able to make the meeting and, when we got home, to phone them to let them know not to go to work the next day. The BCTF president of the day, Jim MacFarlan, had attended the meeting and was absolutely incredulous, wondering no doubt how on earth the STA would pull it all off.
In fact, what our Executive Committee organized overnight was nothing short of amazing. Protest signs were readied, busses organized, radio coverage arranged, a meeting venue in Victoria booked, and plans put in place for rallying at the legislature. The ferries were full that morning, not just with teacher passengers, but with the solidarity and courage of teachers taking a stand. We were excited to be sure, it was a heady experience, but we were also serious and determined.
In Victoria we rallied at the legislature and met in the too-small auditorium at the museum next door. I can still picture the dramatic stand taken by Surrey principal Wes Janzen in response to a patronizing message delivered to us in person by Surrey MLA Ernie Hall. Wes leapt to the stage, reminded Ernie that teachers had worked to get the government elected, whipped out his NPD membership card and threatened to tear it up. Wes, a very collegial and much-admired principal, certainly underscored the message that we all had come to deliver.
By the end of that day, our stand had achieved an agreement with government. As the rally was winding down, Eileen Daily, then Minister of Education, invited the BCTF president to talk with Premier Barrett and the upshot was that we were no longer facing class size increases; in fact, we had secured class size reductions not just in Surrey but throughout the province. Our strike was a resounding success and led to improved learning and teaching conditions in all of BC’s public schools.
As a young, new teacher, it truly was a watershed experience for me. What did I learn? It taught me in no uncertain terms, that when we stand together, we can resist the attempts to push our students’ learning and our working conditions backwards. When we are determined, we find out courage. And, as we know about ourselves as teachers, we can organize great things virtually overnight.