Thursday, March 19, 2015

Thoughts on the 99th BCTF AGM

Intended audience: Prince George District Teachers's Association.  Thanks to other PGDTA delegates who have already shared their observations, vote tallies, etc.

These are my own views here; not necessarily the views of the PGDTA, although I certainly tried to represent the PGDTA!

First, a glossary of terms for those unfamiliar with the internal structure of the BCTF

AGM = Annual General Meeting - c. 700 delegates from across the BCTF debating up 50-80 resolutions (from locals) that each intend to shift the organization in a large or small way. Many of these are tabled or do not reach the floor. This group also elects the EC.

RA = Rep Assembly - 3x/year meeting of c. 350 "Local Representatives" and local presidents to set budgets, receive reports, debate new motions and revisit motions not dealt with at the AGM. They typically "get more done" than the AGM does, although it is still bound by politics, agendas, and debate strategies (e.g. filibustering) employed at the larger meeting.

EC = Exec committee - Pres, 1st VP, 2nd VP, and 10 members-at-large (MAL) who, through meetings and sub-committees, set direction for the BCTF including finances, member services, philosophy, social justice campaigns and projects, PR tactics re gov't and public, and bargaining.

COALITION = a "party" or syndicate within the BCTF - somewhat organized group of district reps who have more or less controlled the EC since 1999 and have built a reputation for the BCTF as a social justice union. They are, arguably, the successors to a left/progressive group called "Teacher Viewpoint" (TV) that was active in the BTCF in the 1980s and 90s but found itself in a minority on key issues around the structure of the union after 1987. The current Coalition is made up of some large locals, mainly from lower mainland, and most of the small unamalgamated locals.

INDEPENDENTS = another syndicate within the BCTF - until recently this was a less organized group of district reps who have built strategic or pragmatic campaigns to offer alternative EC candidates and motions at AGMs and RAs. At some point in they shifted from being a loose alliance of like-minded locals to being an actual voting block like the Coalition. They are, arguably, the successors to a group called "Teachers for a Unified Federation" (TUF) that split from the TV in 1986 and formed a majority on key issues from 1987-1999 (think Kit Krieger). The Independents are often associated with cost-savings measures and placing direct member services ahead of other priorities.

NON-AFFILIATED = AGM delegates or EC candidates that do not adhere to the party system or align themselves with either one. Technically everyone is free to vote their conscience, and many did, but in reality there is a tendency for locals to vote together on key issues -- maybe based on shared values, maybe based on affiliations with a "party." Most of the time, the two "camps" play nice with each other and share many views or common goals. There are annoying individuals on both sides, though, who exaggerate the differences and seek to provoke. Ironically, these seemed to be the ones with emotional pleas for unity at the mic, and suggest that this "yes" or that "no" will tear apart our union. For this reason, many delegates, although ready to vote with their "peeps," are not keen to declare loyalty to one syndicate or the other, or insist that the syndicates do not actually exist as parties, merely fluid alliances.

Observations on the 99th BCTF AGM

1) While there is a party system at play within the BCTF, it does not account for all of the direction taken by the EC, nor does it precisely explain the voting patterns, although it may come close. The intense vote-whipping of the past (often associated with the Coalition) was not obvious here; if anything it seemed the Independents were putting more pressure on their delegates to "think as one." There are many issues where teachers simply recognized that a progressive action was needed, and voting was near unanimous. One could say that there is a financial restraint theme and a social justice theme running through many motions, and that delegates gravitate towards one of these themes based on their own values, many of which are shared with others in their local. Personally, my vote was also influenced by the quality of the motion, including grammatical mistakes and far-fetched assumptions, regardless of the prevailing theme. I voted for most of the cost-savings measures, but I also supported many social justice advocacy positions that did not have costs attached (e.g. agree that BCTF should advocate against cuts to CBC). I spoke against a motion to oppose the "BC Skills for Jobs Blueprint," not because the Blueprint lacks serious deficits, but because the motion contained a convoluted list of problematic conditions for opposing the Blueprint. To fix the motion, amendment by amendment, would have taken all day. Wisely, this one was referred to the EC for further consideration.

2) The "Anti-126" lobby was aggressive and controversial. This was the resistance from small unamalgamated locals (and their Coalition allies) to remove their presidential grants through Resolution 126. An extreme case, Stikine, has only 22 members but has a full-time president paid for by BCTF, although their four schools face extreme isolation and travel time. Lake Cowichan provides a better example of why presidential grants are an issue. This unamalgamated local has 30-something teachers, a full-time president, and is 20 minutes from the Cowichan local with 450 teachers and official recognition by the district's board office. At the last minute Quesnel's Resolution 126 was withdrawn. The rationale given was that the anti-126 tactics were divisive and that the QTA did not want to further contribute to disunity within the BCTF. Two views on this move: a) their point was made; withdrawing the motion was a conciliatory gesture, or b) withdrawing the motion removed a controversial issue that may have stuck to Independents candidates. Another motion on reforming presidential grants, PGDTA's Resolution 130, was rejected.

3) A big part of the AGM is the election of the EC. This year the Pres (Iker - Coalition), 1st VP (Hansman - Coalition? -- some say he is now non-affiliated), 2nd VP (Mooring - Independents) were acclaimed. 3 Coalition member-at-large candidates were elected to the EC (Sanyshyn, Ball, and Chaddock-Costello) and 2 from the Independents (Johnston and Steer). I am no expert on the politics, just trying to figure it out really, but my scan of the current EC (3 table officers and 8 MAL) shows 5-6 for the Coalition and 5-6 for the Independents. I imagine this results in great debate at the EC table, but also opportunities for creative solutions and compromises. This reflects the last year on the EC as well, with the possible result being that we did not se fee increases this year and in fact saw a small cap placed on the growth of the International Solidarity Fund. For the most part the competition at this AGM was civil, unlike last year where battles and accusations took place at the mic and in the social media backchannels. One example of questionable politicking this year was a candidate using campaign flyers as draw tickets for prizes, and then announcing draw winners at the mic throughout the AGM. Each day the tables were festooned with campaign swag and pamphlets, although a resolution was passed that next year the candidates are restricted to a written statement and buttons -- no size limit on the buttons, though... I'm expecting some will be a metre across and lit by neon.

4) Aside from various motions aimed at controlling finances, there were some that invited the BCTF to focus more on member issues and member engagement and less on professional/social issues and battles with third parties. Resolution 134 asked the BCTF to only adopt public positions on matters that aligned with the actual Goals of the BCTF. This would effectively limit many of the pet projects like fighting fossil fuels, protecting health care, issuing warnings about the dangers of wifi, etc. I think the idea is that these are all great causes, but lie outside the mandate of the BCTF. Resolutions 141, 143, 147, and 150 all sought a one-member-one-vote (OMOV) system, and were all defeated. I got the sense that this was least popular among the Coalition types. Perhaps this threatens delegates that wonder if they actually represent a majority of their members. There were arguments that OMOV would favour large locals in the urban centres, or that that campaigning would now be perpetual/provincial and would favour the wealthy and the incumbents. It may have also been a non-starter with long-time BCTF activists of all stripes -- if we had OMOV, and kept up with 3 RAs per year, for what exactly would we need the AGM?

5) It seems to me that systemic or at least persistent issues in the BCTF, e.g. the unamalgamated locals, spending priorities, voting procedures, etc. are not easily resolved at the AGM (or the RA for that matter). The process is too unwieldy and too political. Some kind of sustained dialogue, with a mandate to create proposals, and the legitimacy of leaders present, needs to occur. This could and should happen within the EC itself, but does not do so to the satisfaction of all, although they did have a number of useful and logical recommendations on the floor. One fellow I talked to (the Kootenay-Columbia president) had a good suggestion: a gathering pf presidents with the purpose of coming up with new plan for member representation, geographic and demographic allowances, and presidential grant reform. Others suggested a constitutional assembly with the mandate to propose new formulas and reforms. Regardless of the way forward, having one-off AGM motions that chip away at the BCTF's sacred cows has not been generally successful. Many of these motions, while motivated by desire for accountable spending, etc., would also hamstring the EC and limit the BCTF's ability to do some things it does well. Other motions simply overburden the BCTF with new causes, new committees, and "studies." These piecemeal efforts help make individual local's views known, but are as effective as running alongside a moving train and asking firmly that the conductors change direction.

6) One of the elephants in the room (wouldn't be a fun AGM without them!) was the financial situation of the BCTF.  It was not clear to me whether or not we were in deficit mode, nor that we were on track to refill the Collective Bargaining Defense Fund (CBDF) by 2019.  In the past, it seemed the solution to deficit was to raise the member dues, rather than to look for cost savings -- this choice seems to mark a key difference between the Coalition and Independents. The membership dues did not go up this year (although the BCTF has a higher revenue because our salaries have risen).  Currently we pay 1.79% of our salary in BCTF dues. This works out to about $1300 for the average teacher. Ten years ago we paid 1.38% of our salary, or about $1000 for the average teach (in 2015 dollars). This increase is often explained by the costs associated with our Supreme Court challenges since 2002. At some point a few years ago (2012 I think), the EC recommended an increase as a temporary measure, but our dues have only ever gone up, not down, as far as I can tell. The lack of strike pay last year came up a few times.  On the one hand, we held the line based on our convictions and did so despite the strike fund drying up in 3 days.  On the other hand, we sent the message that the BCTF was broke and did not place a high enough value on the CBDF and its members to keep it topped up in the years leading up to the inevitable show-down.  Interesting, a topic that was avoided was whether or not our bargaining strategy and strike were worth it in terms of the deal we got.  I hope that discussion does take place somewhere where it can be of value.  My personal view is that, with a reduced fee level set at the AGM (e.g. 1.5% of salary) we should leave the EC and RA to hammer out the details on how our money should be spent, but they should do so with more active consultation of all members through neutral polling. I believe our union dues are the highest in Canada and our organization has reached "labyrinthine" status -- I think we could accomplish our objectives (including international solidarity, pro-d, bargaining, etc.) with a smaller BCTF bureaucracy and a lower fee level.

7) The AGM is a great opportunity to meet colleagues and have meaningful "teacher" conversations -- not everything happens at the mic. Speaking of which, I went to the mic a number of times; admittedly the main reason was to "call the question" when the debate was going in circles. I was also busy on twitter, and found myself defending the various reasons why the presidential grants needed to change to provide more equity and consistent representation within the BCTF. Serious stink-eye on that one -- these small locals saw this as an attack on a decades-old way of doing union business, and likened it to the BC Liberals slashing services and cutting costs in the Education system. Other members of the PGDTA delegation each contributed in their own way -- taking notes, speaking at the mic, engaging others in dialogue on issues. I think that the delegations do not need to be as big as they are. The Empress-hosted AGM (and 3 RAs) are very expensive and could do with some consolidation. I figure the AGM alone must cost the BCTF $1 million.

8) The AGM also featured a number of special speakers. Besides a First Nations welcome from a Tsouke elder and few different speeches from Jim Iker and others in the EC, we heard from Paul Faoro (CUPE-BC), Teresa Resanzoff (BCSTA - trustees president), Bob Taverner (RTA, retired teacher from PG), Nicole Makohoniuk (BCCPAC - parents), Irene Lazinger (former BCTF president, new BC Fed president), John Horgan (BC NDP leader), Stewart Phillip (Grand Chief, Union of BC Indian Chiefs), Diane Woloschuk (president Canadian Teachers' Federation), some more I have forgotten (i may have nodded off a bit during the pension plan presentation), and a number of award recipients including a lifetime BCTF membership for Jim Sinclair, outgoing BC Fed president. A little something for everyone.

That's probably enough -- if you're still reading this some cap doffing is in order... moved and seconded.