Public supports teachers!

Polls show teachers union winning the PR battle in its contract war with the BC Liberals.[From]: Business in Vancouver October 18-24, 2005; issue 834

Public Opinion

Steve Mossop

Polls show teachers union winning the PR battle in its contract war with the BC Liberals

Round 10 in the labour battle royal pitting the BC Teachers Federation against the provincial government and the BCTF appears to be getting the upper hand in the public relations arena.

An Ipsos Reid poll of 800 B.C. residents completed on October 10 shows the majority of B.C. residents, especially parents, side with the teachers. Currently, the majority of B.C. adults (56 per cent) supports the teachers and the BCTF in this dispute (nearly double the 33 per cent that support the B.C. Public School Employer’s Association) and 54 per cent disagree with the provincial government’s decision to legislate an end to the contract dispute. Support levels are even higher among parents with at least one child in the K-12 school system, indicating that those with most at stake in the education system are the strongest supporters of the teachers.

Another research company, the Mustel Group, released a poll (albeit with a much smaller sample size of 300) showing a slightly smaller number (53 per cent) support the teachers, but that 52 per cent opposed the B.C. teachers’ plan to strike (45 per cent supported the idea). A further 81 per cent agreed that class size has an impact on education quality.

Historically, the provincial government could always count on the support of the public to take a hard stance toward the teachers. The BCTF’s militancy, its close ties to the NDP and organized labour and parents’ belief that education is an essential service always meant that contract settlements could be imposed with little political outcry – especially in B.C.’s recessionary ’90s.

This time around, however, it’s different.

Why?

Well, for starters, the B.C. government is sitting on a large surplus and the provincial economy is booming. In addition, the last estimate for this fiscal year puts the surplus as high as $1.3 billion, GDP has risen 3.6 per cent this year, the unemployment rate is at its lowest rate in decades and the housing boom has made everyone feel richer.

Another Ipsos Reid poll puts consumer confidence in the provincial economy at record heights (82 per cent describe the overall state of the provincial economy as “good” or “very good”).

Little surprise then that the poll shows 46 per cent of the adults surveyed feel that teachers are underpaid, compared with six per cent who said they’re overpaid. Even on the right to strike issue, the teachers appear to have support where little previously existed.

The government’s hard-line approach of a zero per cent wage increase, refusal to relent on the class-size issue and imposition of back-to-work legislation has therefore been made harder to swallow.

The BCTF has also done a relatively good PR job of comparing modest teacher salaries against escalating MLA salaries, and BCTF president Jinny Sims, with a softer, more friendly approach than her predecessors, has been able to cultivate increased support. The BC Liberals, on the other hand, have been relatively silent in this dispute.

Unfortunately for parents, students and teachers, it’s a no-win debate with both sides entrenched in unmovable positions.

This time, however, the BC Liberals may have gone too far in battling the BCTF, paying the price in the court of public opinion with an erosion of support for their government.

Steve Mossop is the Managing Director Of Ipsos-Reid, Market Research Canada West. He can be reached at steve.mossop@ipsos-reid.com.

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