The view from here - Canada - 'We, too, should have rights,' teachers protest

11th May 2012 at 01:00

Not in the school. Not in the hall. Not on your car. No, not at all. This is the gist of a letter sent to teachers by a school board in Prince Rupert, British Columbia, which banned Dr Seuss quotes on school property.

Teachers in the small town were threatened with disciplinary action by the board for displaying a quote from the children's book Yertle the Turtle - "I know, up on top you are seeing great sights, but down here at the bottom we, too, should have rights" - on clothing and bumper stickers. Dr Seuss is too political, argued the board.

The teachers had been using the slogan to protest against Bill 22, legislation making strike action illegal across the region, which was passed after contract negotiations between teachers and the province broke down in March.

Whether or not the school board has the power to ban Dr Seuss from school property remains to be seen, but the row illustrates the antagonistic turn labour negotiations have taken across Canada as provincial governments struggle to balance their books by freezing or cutting public sector salaries.

Having lost the right to strike, teachers in British Columbia voted last week to boycott voluntary extracurricular activities such as coaching sports teams and attending graduation ceremonies. But with Bill 22 in place, few options remain to express their displeasure without the prospect of facing large fines.

The hardball approach taken by the provincial government is being seen across the country, as teaching unions are weakened by the loss of collective bargaining. In Ontario, Canada's most populous province, teachers' contracts do not expire until August, but that has not prevented the government from signalling its controversial position - a wage freeze for two years, no movement within the existing salary grid and an end to retirement payouts for unused sick days - in an attempt to rein in a $15.3 billion (#163;9.5 billion) deficit.

The government invited unions to voluntary labour talks, but showed no sign of compromising. The Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario (ETFO) walked out after only one hour; high school teachers abandoned negotiations two days later. The government has promised to pass immediate back-to-work legislation if the teachers attempt to strike come September.

Sam Hammond, president of the ETFO, played the gender card in criticising the Ontario government for its aggressive and seemingly immovable position. "Our membership is mostly women," Mr Hammond told reporters. "The government proposal is an attack on women, an attack on unions and an attack on public sector workers."

Mr Hammond's statement expresses the frustration felt by labour leaders as they watch the decline of unionism in Canada.

The possibility of illegal strikes has sparked tensions between teachers, including aggressive email exchanges leaked to the media. "You'd have to be a real sociopath to cross the (picket) line in this situation," one read. "I would keep my children away from you, because you're evil. And I'll shout at you."

If Dr Seuss is too much, what does the school board make of that?

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