BCTF AGM: This revolution was not televised

The annual general meeting of the BCTF was held remotely for over 600 delegates, but that is not the only thing about the conference that was revolutionary for BC schools.

If you listened to this week’s Annual General Meeting of the BC Teachers’ Federation, then you already know that our profession just went through a revolution. Given this, the future of our status as a profession is now at stake. What happens next is up to us.

This revolution was not televised. It didn’t need to be. That’s because the meeting was held remotely across many platforms (streaming video of the motions as text, spoken words over the telephone, and online ballots). Glitches aside, the live co-ordination between the three platforms was a marvel, a testament to technical ingenuity in a time of crisis.

For this AGM, my first, I sat listening to the proceedings in my home office at a desk fully loaded with an assemblage of three laptops, one desktop computer, five monitors, and two sets of overlapping head phones to help co-ordinate Steve Querrengesser’s campaign for 2nd VP, participate in the meeting as a delegate, and help manage the floor tactics needed to get clear protections for teachers and professional standards for the health and safety of teachers and schools into the leadership priorities for the upcoming year, given that we are in the midst of a pandemic.

Like a radio play, the AGM provided its listeners (delegates, actually) a chance to hear history unfold. A story told one spoken word at a time. The story developed gradually, at times it was a sputtering dialogue between the old way and a new way. Each line spoken revealed a tiny piece of the plot. A proposal was made. The answer was no. Another alternative was presented. Again, no. But what about this? No, again. Okay, let’s settle for faint hope instead. No, certainly not that.

There were some stifled and stilted dialogues between ideas on how to respond with preparation and fairness to the pressing issues of the day (the pandemic, reconciliation, and racial justice) and the constant refrain of no, not now. Or no, the law makes that impossible. Or no, we can wait, not in this forum, we have no choice, it can’t be done, if you only understood how hard this is to do, we’re doing our best but the answer is still no, we really do care, etc. But mostly there was simply a long monologue of no, punctuated between pauses of piped-in elevator music.

Turning my home office into a kind of a command centre and the blending of platforms to conduct a meeting of over 600 delegates spread across the province might make you think that the revolution we witnessed was simply a technological one, but it was not. The revolution was actually political, ripping deep into the heart of what kind of union the BCTF is to become.

The future of our status as a profession is now at stake.

Based on what I just witnessed through the spoken word of this historic AGM, it seems quite possible that the BCTF concluded the meeting as something new. We began the AGM as a union of professionals. We ended emerging as a service association union – in its embryo form.

Every progressive candidate lost every position that they ran for this year. Let that sink in. Every single progressive candidate lost, failing to win a single seat. It was, in one teacher’s view, a total “smack down”. This means that soon there will be few progressive voices (or votes) on the Executive Committee of the BCTF.

You could hear hints of the revolution coming in code words. Hints like “a place at the table” and “helping locals serve members more” singled what was really in play. Let’s hope the hints don’t become more open calls to permanently dismantle, not simply to set aside as is the case now, long-standing structures of democratic engagement in our union of professionals.

What’s a service association union?

Unions as service associations are essentially run like businesses. Members pay a fee and, in return, get a service from an organization. Each functions as a contracted-out human resources department. Members, themselves, pay for these services, with our dues.

Unlike a union of professionals, service association unions aren’t interested in the work itself – the work that its members actually perform. This includes the values and outcomes that the actual work provides for society.

Service association unions simply work through formal processes, answer member questions, and facilitate communication between employer and employee.

The BCTF was already moving in this direction, with professional unionists losing seats at the union’s Executive Committee over the past few AGM elections. Already, the language from leadership was shifting from making demands on behalf of teachers to providing teachers with more services while also simply framing our asks in terms that the employer could more easily accept.

For example, the year’s theme to members was our own personal wellness – not so much to demand lower workloads or better conditions to help improve the work-life balance, but instead to manage the stress levels ourselves.

There’s nothing wrong with paying attention to wellness. But a union should focus on the employer doing their job by respecting our health, not doing it for them. We can see how important it is for the union to stand up clearly, forcefully, transparently, and meaningfully for workers’ health in a pandemic.

To help us manage our wellness, members were provided books on how we could take care of our ourselves and were provided links to online mental health materials. We collectively paid for such programs with our dues and union staff time, rather than using dues to seek gains in terms of benefits provided by the employer – through effective collective action.

Of course, there is room for nuance, and the current leadership of the BCTF has done more than nothing when it comes to advocating for our mental health and working conditions. But that said, the tone internally has shifted. Rather than focus on work-life balance as a question of workload, a new message entered our conversation. We, the workers, should simply take better care ourselves as a way to achieve that balance.

Service association unions want fair pay, but aren’t equipped to deliver.

Service association unions want their members to get good pay and benefits. They are not against members getting these things. The wanting is not the problem. The problem is in the delivery.

At first, a service association union can be tempting. You get to maintain all of the hard-won gains already in place, and you can do this for a lot less work and hassle. But later the power of the union will be less, as time, resources, and effort goes from building power to servicing human resources.

If you listen closely, those who want to be a service association union will say that they want a “place at the table” and that they will bring “good ideas” to the employer. If it was ever that easy. Employers don’t reject ideas because they are “good” or “bad” but rather they do whatever they can to get the most benefit from your work for the least cost to them.

Unions of professionals build power and are therefore capable of winning gains for members and society.

Unions of professionals push back, collectively, on the demands of employers that go against the values of the profession or the interests of professionals as works. These unions are therefore able to get fair pay for the work provided. Over time the service association will lose its capacity to actually make gains, because it simply can’t do any of this given their model or strategy.

Yes, it will have a seat at the table, but only to be told what the best and final offer is, over and over again. And if the service model remains in place for too long, the union won’t have any capacity to do anything other than repeat back to members what the employer says and does.

Unions of professionals have the most to lose when shifting from being a union to becoming a service association instead, more than most other unions have to lose. That’s because professionalism is about two things: The body of knowledge that informs practice and the outcomes that this practice produces.

Professions exist to produce some good or benefit that goes beyond pay for work performed. Teachers produce education. Teachers in public schools provide this universally and fairly. We fight for equity, against racism, for reconciliation, and to end all forms of oppression. Education is humanizing, and this requires standing up for the values of justice, love, and solidarity.

And as professionals, we know how to do this. A union of professionals is the body that supports and sustains our collective practices as teachers. This is inherently political, or about power and relationships in society.

Education is either political or it isn’t education.

Public education is political because it is an institution of democracy, like the court system, journalism, and free and fair elections. Education is political but isn’t partisan. Our job is to teach students to be critical and engaged citizens of a democracy. Service associations are not political. They simply process human resources on behalf of their members, employees.

The service-association-faction of the BCTF out organized and out maneuvered the union-of-professionals-faction. A large and decisive majority of service union executive committee members are now in positions of power in our union.

It will take time to reverse course and to get leaders who understand what a union of professionals needs to do: Be political, build power, engage members, and stand up for the integrity of public education.

The choice is ours. The stakes could not be higher.

In the meantime, those of us who don’t want the BCTF to become a full-fledged service union must be clear about the choice we are making. We must be clear and explicit, and we must stand our ground. This call goes to everyone: Union staff, table officers, members at large, local representatives, local officers, and members.

We must remember that, at this AGM, on every almost issue that matters to teachers now – from whether or not to set priorities as a union at the AGM, to set standards of practice for teacher and student safety during a pandemic, to build a political strategy to achieve professional pay, to commit to actions on reconciliation, and to make equity within our union structures a priority, the prevailing side said “no”.

Already, advisory committees are shut down from giving advice, motions to stand up for worker rights and protections are being tabled, and dialogue is being closed. It’s not too late to launch a counter revolution, but the time to act is now. The future of public education and the very profession of teaching is at stake.

Originally posted at TomKertes.ca.