The following is a statement from Kevin Drager, President of the Education and Training Employees’ Association (ETEA), Local 21 of the Federation of Post-Secondary Educators:

Yesterday our members at ETEA Local 9, the teachers at Vancouver English Centre, received a copy of an email from the school owner, Ken Gardner, in which he accused the union of holding a strike to damage the school.

Mr. Gardner’s union-blaming is a false and malicious response to a good faith attempt by ETEA-9 to resume negotiations and re-open the school.

Here are the facts:

  • The teachers made every effort to negotiate a reasonable contract for 15 months, while the employer repeatedly cancelled bargaining dates, refused to respond to proposals, and did everything possible to hold up negotiations. Gardner had the option of bargaining in good faith.
  • Eventually, the parties agreed to mediation, but when the union presented its latest offer via the mediator, the employer chose to walk out rather than responding, leaving the union with no choice but to go on strike. We thought we were close to a deal, but with the employer no longer willing to speak to us strike action was the only option left available to the union. Gardner could have prevented the strike. All he had to do was reply to an offer via the mediator and keep bargaining.
  • The union’s proposals were reasonable. The key issue still outstanding was a significant pay gap between the “Skills 4 Kids” teachers and the rest of the teachers, a gap of over 50% in some cases. Most of the teachers earned less than a living wage, and many lived below the poverty line. The union was attempting to narrow the gap and bring all the teachers into line with the industry standard.
  • VEC teachers earn anywhere from 25 – 50 per cent less than the industry standard. We proposed wage increases that will allow the teachers to earn at least a family-supporting, living wage in Metro Vancouver. We proposed that wages also include prep time (such as curriculum development), marking, and student consultations, which we had been required to provide for free. Quality education requires that students receive adequate supports, and as teachers, our members are deeply committed to the students. Gardner cared more about his own profits than about the quality of education for students.
  • Our members’ wages have been stagnant for five years – have actually declined when factoring in the rise in cost of living – yet tuition fees (and therefore the employer’s revenue and profit margins) have increased significantly in that same period.
  • In the early days of the strike the union invited Mr. Gardner back to the bargaining table, but he chose instead not to respond. After three weeks on strike, the employer finally agreed to return to private mediation – and the union was shocked when instead of showing up, he closed the school!
  • The teachers are devastated by the school closure. Every one of them cares a lot about their students, they love their jobs, and they had genuinely believed that the mediation would help them get back to work.

The impact of this employer’s refusal to bargain in good faith and subsequent school closure is a clear indication of why private language and career schools need to be properly regulated by the provincial government, including means for enforcement. Self-regulation by bodies that are essentially lobby groups for the industry doesn’t offer any real protection for the workers or the students. In this case, the employer refused to refund the students their money; nor did he pay the homestay families the money that he had collected and was supposed to use to compensate them. He also supposedly continued to collect tuition from agents and students while the strike was ongoing and after he had decided to close the school.

Mr. Gardner is claiming insolvency. He claims the union ruined his business. But Mr. Gardner had 15 months to explain to the union that his financial situation was too precarious to meet their demands. Instead, he refused to open his books, and as late as last week, claimed he was offering to pay industry-standard wages.

ETEA and FPSE are reviewing all our options, including legal action, in response to the Employer’s abrupt decision to close the school. We will keep members informed about next steps.

On behalf of all the members of ETEA, we extend our solidarity and support to all the teachers and members of ETEA-9. We are with you 100%.

In solidarity,

Kevin Drager