Teachers across the Province went on strike yesterday and will continue for the next two days. With over 41,00 teachers walking out, the industrial action was one of the largest demonstrations in decades. Teachers withdrew services in protest of Bill-22 — provincial legislation against collective bargaining for salary, benefit improvements, class size and quality of education. The bill seeks to immediately force teachers back to work without a contract, but also to undermine public education in the long-term.
Yesterday’s demonstrations followed on the heels of a powerful, diverse student walkout last Friday on the Vancouver Art Gallery lawns. Despite uncooperative rainy conditions, the student walkout saw an enthusiastic show of politicization by the province’s youth along diverse lines of class, race and ethnicity. The students made an overwhelming call for justice and equality for fellow students and teachers across the province who have been adversely affected by eleven years of neoliberal austerity measures, cuts to education, anti-union legislation, coupled with generous corporate tax cuts.
What is Bill-22? Why are 137,000 children living in poverty?
Bill-22 anti-union legislation is significant for its anti-worker mandate. First, it terminates collective bargaining by enforcing a government-appointed mediator to work under a government authorization for net zero, no salary or benefit improvements. The Bill brands any strike action as “illegal,” subject to substantial penalties for union members and representatives. The act also terminates all current class-size and composition limits established in the School Act (Bill 33), whose purpose is to allow teachers to successfully tailor provincial curriculum to the increasing numbers of students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs). IEPs exist to better incorporate the learning experience of students with special needs in the context of ballooning class sizes.
This anti-worker legislation is being served at a moment in the province’s history when the divide between the rich and the poor is swelling to drastic and abject levels. According to the eighth annual report card on child poverty released in November 2011, 137,000 children (or 16.4 per cent) are living in poverty — an increase of 16,000 children from the previous year. This is the highest poverty rate of any province for the eighth consecutive year. These statistics are even more disturbing when considered alongside last year’s Metro Vancouver homeless count, which saw an exponential increase in the number of homeless youth and families. Alice Sundberg, co-chair Greater Vancouver Regional Steering Committee on Homelessness stated in an interview with the Georgia Straight that the primary cause of increased homelessness was high rents and gentrification. “Where it’s really coming from is the fact that rents are too high, and people are paying enormous parts of their income on just being housed.”
Clearly in an environment when working and low-income people of British Columbia are denied the right to strike as well as the right to housing and living wage, the only right that Christy Clark is asserting is the right to inequality.
At the gates of Strathcona Elementary
Outside Strathcona Elementary School yesterday, Strathcona Parents made up of many members from the DTES Neighborhood Council (DNC), stood in solidarity with protesting teachers. The DNC, a community organization comprising 1,000 members, is currently fighting all levels of government against rampant structural inequality in Vancouver’s inner-city neighborhood. Standing alongside parents of Strathcona, the DNC’s message was committed and principled: not only should the people of British Columbia stand in solidarity with teachers’ right to strike, but we should also support those who are directly effected by Christy Clark’s austerity measures. First, we need to stand and fight with low-income families and individuals who are forced to survive on minuscule welfare and disability rates; second, on the DTES explicitly, there needs to be a moratorium on condo development and a termination of exploitative rents; third, funding needs to be increased for stressed or inexistent childcare; and finally, the city and province should stop demolishing affordable housing, from Little Mountain to Heather Place to the American Hotel.
In Vancouver’s DTES, Gentrification is proceeding at an unprecedented rate. Block-by-block, low-income family housing, SROs and social housing are being upscaled into micro-lofts, luxury condos, and student housing for those who can pay for higher rents and a new luxurious lifestyle. As the existing affordable housing stock is upscaled into high-end condos, there is also an influx of shops and services that cater to wealthier clientele. These gentrified sites are aptly titled “Zones of Exclusion” by organizers and residents in the neighborhood. These are spaces that people are unable to access because they simply lack the economic and social means for participation. Under Christy Clark’s leadership, bolstered by the local city council, the city and entire province are being transformed into one large zone of exclusion, separating out parcels of land according to those who can pay and those who cannot.
Inequality in British Columbia has been climbing rapidly since the introduction of neoliberal politics in the mid and late 1970s. This was a time when terms like “restraint,” “downsizing, “free enterprise” and “new economic reality” served to introduce a logic of austerity and neo-conservative Reaganomics to British Columbia. Since 1983, when the Social Credit government was re-elected and introduced the infamous ‘26 bills’ that sparked the almost forgotten Operation Solidarity, we have seen nothing but further retrenchment by the Province. Rural regions in British Columbia are being subjected to a “radical political-economic experiment” in neoliberalism. A regime of restraint and inequality is alive and well in BC, with the provincial government continuously selling off its assets while the City of Vancouver holds down the lowest combined corporate tax level in the world and appoints veteran neoliberal ideologues to its Housing Affordability Task Force.
This past year, the structural inequality that persists in low income communities in BC was exposed by a letter that Seymour Elementary school teacher Carrie Gelson wrote to the Vancouver Sun. The letter detailed how her Grades 2 students were arriving to school hungry, without socks, holed-shoes, and most unsettling, were without safe and affordable housing. On the surface, the letter was a desperate plea for immediate help, but it also moved beyond short-term charity in its strident call for justice and equality.
In Vancouver especially, the unbridled rights of private property are being secured in the face of the squalor of social inequality. What is distressing is the rapid pace of the commodification of social housing, a problem that should be seen alongside market approaches to public education. Meanwhile, funding for independent private schools in the last six years has only increased. In the same way that the city government uses the tax system to transfer capital to developers and the real-estate industry as a whole, the province is transferring more and more money to the private eduction sector. According to BCTF research, there have been significant changes over the last seven years (2006–07 to 2012–13) with respect to independent school funding. Public school funding increased by 9.1% compared to a 29% increase in funding for Independent Schools. For 2012-2013 budgetary year, public school funding will peak at 0.4%, while Independent School funding will increase by .7%. In total, Independent Schools funding will obtain from the public purse $1.8 million in 2012-13.
These decreases in funding have resulted in both larger class sizes and decreases in special education support personnel. In the past few years, Elementary and High School counsellors, Psychologists, Speech-Language Pathologists and Learning Support Teachers have all faced layoffs and restructuring, resulting in increased case-loads. It follows that these cuts have led to decreased services to students with various complex learning needs across the province. While wealthy families can afford to pay for extra services such as Psycho-Educational assessments (approximately $1500), Speech-Language Pathology services($120/hour, $1000 for an assessment) and other private tutors, children in middle and low income families cannot. These children have to endure long waitlists and in many cases do not get the help that they need at all. It should be noted that some of these assessments (particularly Psych-Educational Assessments) are often mandatory in order to qualify for funding for in-class support from the Ministry of Education.
To further the divide, Parent Advisory Committees are currently operating as super-fundraisers. Schools in richer areas run various complex fundraisers and end up with the monies to invest in everything from books and textbooks to iPads, smartboards and FM systems. These materials and technologies are often extremely helpful for students with different learning needs, but are only available if a given PAC has both the financial resources and the parents to volunteer with their free time and energy.
It should be stressed: wealthy families are able to feed, cloth and house their kids while paying privately for much-needed learning services low-income families cannot afford. As Carrie Gelson and other teachers’ testimonies have most recently revealed, teachers and support staff are often feeding and clothing their students out of their own pocket.
Budget Cuts and Inequality
Against the backdrop of ever-increasing inequality, the BC Liberals’ 2012 Budget, released a week and a half ago, cemented greater austerity. Fundamental issues such as poverty, evictions, homelessness, and growing income inequality were removed from the table. In their place, funding cuts and tax breaks are provided to wealthy buyers of new homes and recreational properties valued between $520,000 and $850,000. This is placed alongside a new prison-building agenda to criminalize those who fall through the cracks of an unjust system. As the DNC and VANDU have exposed, the BC Liberals have partnered with Brookfield Int. in a P3 to build an expanded and privatized 216-cell remand centre in Surrey BC to the tune of $185 million — the largest capital plan in BC Corrections history. According to VANDU/DNC organizer Aiyanas Ormond, these lavish law and order budgets prove that the province’s “cupboard is really not dry.”
For the first time in ten years, the government has announced that they may consider increasing corporate taxes: from 10 to 11 per cent — but not until 2014, and only under the condition that the government is unable to balance its budget. Under these conditions it is doubtful that a one percent increase will happen at all.
These economic policies transpire in an environment where corporate profits are expected to exceed $24.7 billion this year, while the province corporate-income tax receipts will be less than $2.3 billion — a measly 9.1% of profits. Corporate income tax has dropped from 16.5 percent in 2001 to 10 percent in 2011, leading to a $7.7 billion dollar loss in revenue. In 2013, corporate profits are expected to rise to $25.8 billion, yet the province’s share will drop to 7.9%. Against a future backdrop of increasing inequality, corporate profits are expected to reach $31.3 billion by 2015.
The people of British Columbia should not be blackmailed into thinking that they are the ones who should be paying for province-wide inequality. The money is there, the only problem is that it is currently being given away to the rich.
(*A public rally will be held this Wednesday 7 March 2012 (2pm Vancouver Art Gallery) in support of BC Teachers*)
 Magnusson, Walter, et. al. The New Reality: The Politics of Restraint in British Columbia. New Star: Vancouver, 1984.
 Young, Nathan. “Radical Neoliberalism in British Columbia: Remaking Rural Geographies“. Canadian Journal of Sociology: 33(1). 2008 <http://ejournals.library.ualberta.ca/index.php/CJS/article/view/1525>.