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VANCOUVER - Close to 200 CUPE members, staff and guests participated in CUPE BC’s 2006 Education Conference November 2 - 4 in Vancouver. The front-line education staff in the K-12, colleges and university sectors clearly demonstrated that they are up to Meeting the Challenges in Public Education – the conference theme.

CUPE BC president Barry O’Neill opened the conference and talked about the many forces that will shape education work and jobs. O’Neill flagged the broad issues of privatization, underfunding, skills shortages and violence in the workplace. He thanked CUPE members for their activism and their commitment to students and one another.

One of the biggest issues that we will all be dealing with is fighting public-private partnerships (P3s),” said O’Neill. Commenting on the B.C. Liberal government’s recent announcement that public bodies must build public sector projects as P3s unless there is a “compelling reason” not to, O’Neill called it wrongheaded to “start with the premise that P3s are innocent until proven guilty.”

National Secretary-Treasurer Claude Généreux brought greetings on behalf of CUPE President Paul Moist and the National Executive Board. He praised the leadership of CUPE members in BC for their principled and effective political action, and acknowledged the important contribution of CUPE university workers at the recent CUPE national conference on university issues.

Bringing a global perspective and a strong message of hope, Maude Barlow, National Chairperson of the Council of Canadians, gave the keynote speech on Thursday night. She placed the day-to-day issues that education staff face in the context of international pressure to downgrade and privatize every aspect of public services.

Barlow talked about trends that combine to pose a threat to the existence of public education. First – an attempt to dismantle the basic value that every child matters – a concept at the core of our public education system. She said that a fundamental restructuring is happening – changing the shape of our society and our world from an egg to a pear. The egg, with a substantial middle class supported by services and more opportunity, is being transformed into a pear – a world where the elite few grow in wealth, power and influence, while the middle class loses ground and the ranks of the poor and the disenfranchised grow.

Barlow also discussed attempts by global corporations to cement their right through trade agreements to all public services, including education, and cautioned about the pursuit of harmonization between the United States and Canada. Harmonizing our public education system with things like the Republican’s No Child Left Behind initiative would starve public schools of funds and push them to private management.

Ending on a note of hope, Barlow said that we don’t have to live in a post-Darwinian world whose motto is the “survival of the children of the fittest.” She talked about the successes that labour and other organizations have had pushing back at the World Trade Organization and the Free Trade Area of the Americas Agreement and the democratic change in Bolivia where a new progressive president is transforming society. She praised CUPE for working on many fronts to support progressive change and reminded us all that nothing is more powerful than solidarity between organizations and across borders.

Friday morning featured a panel of presenters covering a broad range of sectors and perspectives within education. June Kaiser, President of CUPE Local 716 in the Richmond School District, talked about violence in the K-12 sector. Kaiser reminded participants that “no one should go to work expecting to be hurt.” Dr. John Woudzia, Superintendent of the New Westminster School District shared his experience managing inadequate budgets and seeking to place resources where they most matter. Woudzia identified the “staff versus stuff” trade-off faced too often, but said that staff, and in particular special education assistants, were a priority.

Stuart Murray, from the Public Interest Research Desk at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, gave an overview of funding trends. Murray presented research findings that from both a traditional ‘return on investment’ perspective and from an equality perspective, investing in education makes sense. Natalie Lisik, President of CUPE Local 2950 at UBC, identified the many trends placing pressure on university employees and students, including commercialization, moving to on-line education, placing more priority on high paying international students and a general dehumanization of university management. Lisik talked about the very personal impacts on CUPE members and other employees and shared some creative solutions and approaches.

Following the Friday morning panel, participants spent the next day and a half in workshops. Workshop topics were: Violence in the Workplace; Accommodation – focusing on disability and attendance management; Changing Work and Workplaces; Psychological Harassment and Bullying; Toxins in the Workplace; and the Challenges of Dealing with Special Needs children in the K-12 system.

Recommendations surfaced at workshops and plenary sessions. As well, each participant filled in a questionnaire at the closing plenary identifying a concrete action in their sector to deal with the challenges of funding cuts and privatization.

In his closing remarks, CUPE BC Secretary-Treasurer Mark Hancock thanked participants, conference organizers and the CUPE BC committees that will help to develop new strategies as a result of the conference outcomes.