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Teachers' protest tactics have long roots in B.C.

Teachers from General Brock Elementary School wave to cars outside the school and hold up signs while on strike in Vancouver, British Columbia March 5, 2012.

Ben Nelms/ Reuters/Ben Nelms/ Reuters

Teachers were upholding a long tradition in British Columbia when they took their protest against restraint to the lawn of the legislature in Victoria.

"These protests are a fairly regular event," said Ken Thornicroft, who teaches labour relations in the Peter B. Gustavson School of Business at the University of Victoria. "Every group has their day, where they book the legislative front lawn so they can take their case to the public."

He does not expect that the protest by teachers will grow to include other groups or unions. Historically, bigger protests have been in response to a broad-based challenge to several groups in the provincial labour movement. The teachers are standing on their own, refusing to sign a deal that many other public-sector unions have already accepted, he said.

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The largest protest in B.C. occurred in November, 1983, and was organized by a coalition of labour unions, community groups and human-rights organizations under the name Operation Solidarity.

At the time, B.C. was the hardest-hit province in Canada during a worldwide recession. In July of 1983, the Social Credit government of Bill Bennett had unveiled measures to cut the civil service by 25 per cent and eliminate job security for more than 250,000 public-service workers. The government had also set out to remake the economy and do away with social services, said Mark Thompson, professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business. Among the changes: The human-rights commission and rent controls were eliminated, doctors were allowed to extra bill and a public-sector wage controls program was extended indefinitely.

Outrage spread like wildfire. A day of protest brought out tens of thousands of people. Forty-thousand people showed up for a protest rally at Vancouver's Empire Stadium.

After the legislation was approved, the province appeared to be heading toward a general strike. Civil servants went on strike. A week later, more than 44,000 teachers, school support staff and school principals walked out. Private-sector unions threatened to walk off their jobs in support of public unions. The ferry system was on the verge of shutting down.

Mr. Bennett reached an agreement with union leader Jack Munro on Nov. 13, 1983, ending a 13-day strike. The government backtracked on provisions to fire employees without cause and without regard to seniority but retained the right to lay off 25 per cent of the civil service. The government moved ahead with other changes.

Prof. Thompson said the current protest is significantly different than that of 1983. "This is all about money, at least for the government. The teachers have a broader agenda, but the government doesn't," he said.

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