A teachers’ union in British Columbia has voiced support for Iranian teachers, acknowledging the tough conditions they work in and the continuing battle they face in trying to secure their employment and human rights.
The British Columbia Teachers' Federation (BCTF) represents all public school teachers in the Canadian province of British Columbia. Established more than 100 years ago in 1917, the BCTF represents 43,000 public school teachers. As a federation with a centennial tradition of advocacy for social justice both at home and on an international level, the BCTF has had an extensive influence on improving the working conditions of its teachers.
IranWire spoke with Larry Kuehn, who has just recently retired from long-standing service as the Director of Research and Technology for the BCTF, about the federation’s work to secure teachers’ rights over more than 100 years. Prior to his work as director for the organization, he served as a local leader and then as president of the federation from 1981 to 1984, an historic period of intense activism across the labor movement and civil society in British Columbia.
More than 100 Years of Impressive Achievements
Throughout its existence, the BCTF has made remarkable achievements in terms of improving the lives of teachers in the province. In particular, Kuehn highlights work the federation did in the 1950s to improve pay equity for men and women. “There were separate pay scales,” Kuehn says. “Women were paid less for the same qualification and experience. That was a significant change that took place because of union actions.” In the 1980s and 1990s, the federation went on to ensure female teachers were paid full salaries while on maternity leave.
Kuehn also highlighted the BCTF’s work to improve classrooms. “We negotiated with the government in the 1970s to reduce class sizes. We negotiated contracts in the early 80s and 90s that place size limits in contracts.” He also said the federation advocated for the establishment of programs for students with special needs during this period.
The BCTF has also developed what Kuehn describes as “extensive social development programs,” and says there are 32 different professional specialist groups within the union. The BCTF has “extensive social justice programs in seven areas: anti-racism, the status of women, environmental justice, peace and global education, disability rights, economic justice, and LGBTQ [rights],” Kuehn says.
Continuous Advocacy and Negotiations with the Provincial Government
As with all civil society organizations, advocacy is an integral component of BCTF’s work. The BCTF has worked and negotiated extensively with the provincial government, and it has not always been an easy process. “The BCTF has often been in conflict with the [provincial] government over a range of policies —sometimes over educational policies, but frequently over the conditions of the work of teachers.” Kuehn remembers one negotiation in particular. “In 2002, the newly-elected right-wing government of the day passed legislation to eliminate [certain] provisions from the collective agreement and they reduced the number of teachers by 3,000. We really fought for the next 15 years, with three major strikes. Eventually, in 2017, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the government had broken the rights of teachers and restored the collective agreement. That brought 3,500 teaching positions back into the school system.”
British Columbia has often had right-wing governments “over the course of 50 years,” Kuehn says, and the BCTF has often challenged them, with, he acknowledges, “varying degrees of success.” Fluctuations in success are natural for most civil society and workers’ groups, and the organization diligently pursued its objectives. “Our union has never given up on the rights of teachers for quality education over that time and has fought the government over those issues,” he says.
In addition to strikes, Kuehn notes that the BCTF has also used “legal action, political action” as key tools to exert pressure on the government. All of these actions and many of the positive results that have been achieved render the BCTF a force to be reckoned with within the British Columbian political landscape.
A Tradition of Advocating for the Rights of Marginalized Groups
One of the BCTF’s objectives has been to protect and promote the rights of marginalized groups, including minorities, people with disabilities, and LGBTQ people.“There was a program initiated against racism in the mid-1970s, which has been in place since then,” Kuehn says.
The BCTF has also, he says, “adopted policies in favor of human rights policies for sexual orientation as a protected area. It has played a lead role in pushing the government and every school board in the province to have a policy called ‘Sogi’ (Sexual orientation and gender identity). They are about protecting the rights of students and ensuring that those rights are protected. We also have an aboriginal education program that started 20 years ago with the aim of improving the situation in terms of the long discrimination against indigenous students, but also protecting indigenous teachers.”
A Provincial Teachers’ Union with an Enduring Tradition of International Solidarity
Despite its provincial stature, the BCTF has been extensively involved in international solidarity movements. “In particular, since the 1960s, we have been involved in solidarity actions,” Kuehn says. “A certain percentage of members’ dues go to international solidarity programs. The biggest program started in the early 80s with a major contribution to the literacy crusade in Nicaragua. It has gone on since then. “
The BCTF’s solidarity movements have mainly been concentrated in Latin America and in Southern Africa. "There was major support for the building of a non-racial union in South Africa, which is now the main teachers’ union there. In Latin America, there have been extensive programs supporting and strengthening unions, in particular when it comes to the participation of women in leadership [roles] in unions, in schools and in society. We supported major programs in Central America, [especially] on non-sexist pedagogy developed by the women in the region looking critically at their curriculum and resources and practices in the classroom, [and] trying to change the power relationships that exist.”
The BCFT is a teachers’ federation, but its international solidarity actions naturally extend to labor rights for all workers. “We support labor rights when they are in struggle and when unions are involved in it,” Kuehn says, and notes two coalitions in particular. When the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed in 1993, certain impacts on public education were noted, leading to the establishment of the Tri-national Coalition in Defence of Education (Canada, the United States and Mexico). The second coalition is the IDEA Network, which Kuehn says is “based on research and communication.” The network produces a publication called Intercombio, publishing research that Kuehn says focuses “particularly on issues such as the impact of standardized testing and neoliberal policies as well as their impact on public education throughout the Americas.” These initiatives are a testament to the BCTF’s robust international agenda, despite being a provincial teachers’ federation.
Solidarity with Iranian Teachers and Workers
Given the harsh and repressive conditions in Iran, a number of workers and teachers demanding reasonable pay, or even to be paid at all, have been subjected to severe crackdowns across the country. The BCTF supports their plight and acknowledges the difficult environment in which they work. “Labor rights are human rights,” Kuehn says. “We are supportive of teachers and workers anywhere, in their struggles to get recognition of those rights and the right to have an impact on the nature of their work. I know that Education International had campaigns in support of some of the teachers’ leaders in Iran, which we supported with messages as well. These rights are fundamental human rights. We offer whatever support we can”