Opinion: Should Teaching Be Declared An Essential Service?

Opinion: Should Teaching Be Declared An Essential Service?

By Wili Liberman, Editor

There is bitterness and recrimination in British Columbia as both the government and the BC Teachers Federation dig in their heels on opposite sides of the labour disruption. And disruption is the reality. Calling the dispute a strike conjures the image of only two sides pitted against each other with a minimum of inconvenience to society at large. In this instance, it is more than that. There are more than two sides at play. Students are being denied an education, to which they are constitutionally entitled. Parents are put out because their children are not in school and many have to scramble for home care incurring additional expense if they can find a place and/or more time away from work. As the situation in BC has become more entrenched, it appears that no ready solution is at hand. Rather than use the summer months to explore options, the two sides appear farther apart with no end in sight. All of which may harm those who should be in school productively learning.

The education sector is no stranger to labour unrest. We have seen teacher strikes in the province of Ontario, particularly during the Mike Harris years, as well as a university student strike in Quebec last year. The ability to strike, when a contract has expired, for example, or other conditions warrant, is a hard won right within the labour movement.

Some professions are prohibited from exercising their right to take to the streets and withhold services. Police and fire fighters come to mind. The removal of the right to strike in these cases pivots on public safety and potential harm to the community. By harm, we mean physical harm. Being a victim of violent crime or stranded in a house fire where trained operatives are called upon for help.

Are children and parents physically endangered by the withdrawal of services by teachers? Based on that criterion, the answer would be a resounding ‘no’ in most cases. If parents were polled, however, concerning this potential declaration, I would bet the response would be an overwhelming affirmative.

Should children be held hostage in a dispute between adults? And if so, what harm will result in the short and long term?

Personally, I wouldn’t like to see educators forced into a situation where they are legislated into a category not of their choosing, particularly as a result of a specific political ideology. Teachers are important members of society and perform an extraordinarily valuable service. The quality of our society depends on how well our children are educated. Parents, however, expect teachers to be thoughtful and mindful of their children, those they are charged with shepherding through pre-school to university. There exists the notion, fair or not, that teachers should be above the fray and focus on the primary objective; the well-being of students.

I don’t think anyone would argue that teachers have a difficult job nor that they are well-compensated for what they do. Just compare teacher salaries and benefits south of the border, for example, to gain some perspective on this.

There seems to be no easy solution to the conflict in BC. Both sides should soften their hard lines and seek dialogue and ultimately compromise for the greater good; students and society at large.

While I don’t agree that teaching should be declared an essential service, I do think that reason coupled with a mature attitude should prevail. The children of Canada deserve no less.

6 comments on "Opinion: Should Teaching Be Declared An Essential Service?"

  1. Rich Roach

    Well said. The problem is that teachers are being forced to strike in order to ensure a proper education for students; they teach because they believe in what they do, passionately. A teacher’s every thought is guided by the students’ needs. I wish teachers didn’t have to worry about being the target of tax cuts, as they effect student success just as much as a strike. These are intelligent people and they need supprt, not opposition.

    • Wili Liberman

      Hi Rich,

      Thank you for your comments. I do believe teachers need to be supported and that they are concerned about the needs of their students. The best news about tax cuts is that governments can be voted in and out. Teachers hold every education system together despite what governments tend to do. I’m happy to see there has been a resolution in the strike so everyone can get back to doing what they do best.

  2. Gerry Chidiac

    I believe that issues in the BC teachers’ strike run very deep. Here is a piece I published on the topic:

    • Wili Liberman

      Hi Gerry,

      Interesting article. Thank you for sharing. I’m not quite certain, however, that the situation with the BC teacher’s strike compares to the rise of Fascism prior to the Second World War. That seems a very stark comparison indeed. I do support what you say that constitutional rights shouldn’t be undermined nor should the rule of law as in the charter case against the BC government. As it stands currently, democratic processes are still the norm in this country and elsewhere. The recent referendum in Scotland is but the latest example. Those who believe passionately in publicly funded education, as I do, have the opportunity to vote the current government out next time round.

  3. Chris S

    It hasn’t taken long to raise the question of declaring teachers an essential service. The real issue here is should teahcer lose their constitutional right to collective bargain and strike if necessary in order to prevent parental inconveneice. And thats mainly what it is. Parents who are concerned about the impact of BC government policies on classrooms on a daily basis; and teachers, who work in this environment every day doing more for kids with less funding and support are really the ‘canary in the coal mine’. Education is an essential service, and the government of British Columbia should treat it and fund it as such. Blaming teachers is easy but not the right answer.

    • Wili Liberman

      Hi Chris,

      I agree that teachers do provide an ‘essential service’ to the community and society at large. Stripping teachers of their constitutional rights is simply not warranted. Governments of all stripes do appear to be focused more on tax cuts than investments. It is time that an enlightened government or leader, wherever they might be, recognize that education is an investment that delivers returns on that investment many times over. This, however, is an increasingly fraught battle as education funding clashes with that of healthcare as our population ages. I believe the road ahead will be rocky but those who passionately support publicly funded education (parents and all stakeholders, which should constitute everyone really) need to galvanize support and make their views known vocally to government. I believe in teachers and I believe in the power of grassroots to effect change.

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