How communications affects strikes

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What can a labour dispute teach you about communications? Quite a lot if you look at the current BC teachers’ strike as an example.

A series of rotating strikes by teachers and a partial lockout by the employer (the provincial government) is crippling the school system in BC right now. It’s not the first time this has happened in my province. In fact, only once in the past 10 years have the two sides managed to negotiate a contract. At all other times, the hammer of back-to-work legislation has had to be invoked.

As a result, I feel for the teachers, students and parents. Funnily enough, I also feel for the provincial government, which is cash-strapped.

Is there a solution to this conundrum?

I handled strike communications in one of my previous jobs and I can say that excellent communications can boost either side and poor ones can undo it. I don’t think either the teachers’ union or the government has done an excellent job in this case.

Teachers: Why is class size so important to the wellbeing of our children? What does the loss of specialist teachers, teacher-librarians and counsellors really mean? Don’t just give us the numbers — make us understand how this affects every family. Why did you wait until May before starting your rotating strikes? (I suspect this was because you wanted to use the threat of cancelling grad as a bargaining chip. Bad decision, now the government has decided to dock your wages over the summer.) Are you willing to shut down some schools in order to make other schools better? (If not, where will the money come from?) What are you willing to compromise on to help reach a deal (we all understand that both sides have to give a little in order to settle.)

Provincial government: Why have you not responded to the BC Supreme Court ruling that the province must retroactively restore class size and composition language that was removed from teachers’ contracts in 2002? Why have you allowed your relationship with the teachers’ union to become so bitter and twisted? Teachers have been without a contract since June 2013 — why have you not taken any action before now to address this issue? Why does the son of the Premier attend an independent school, unaffected by the strike? What are the implications for other important parts of the budget (such as health care) if the education budget rises?

The relationship between the teachers and the government in this dispute has become so poisoned because of past history, the only solution is something dramatic. I think both sides need to look at a country like Finland, which started transforming its education system about 40 years ago. The upshot? Applicants began flooding teaching programs, not because the salaries were so high but because autonomy and respect made the job attractive. Soon, teachers were seen on an equal status with doctors and lawyers. (Can you imagine that happening in North America?!)

Interestingly, Finland spends about 30 per cent less per student than the United States does.

If I were a member of the teachers’ union, I’d be lobbying for a fact-finding trip to Finland to learn how that country made rock stars out of teachers. If I were with the government, I’d want the same trip, to figure out how Finland did it without breaking the bank.