The ESL school I used to work at is on strike

27 Jun

And I don’t think things are going to work out so well, sad to say.

So I have been an ESL teacher for 15 years now (eeek).  I’d been a journalist in Alberta, returned, played around badly at some administrative jobs, and then, along with a whole lot of other folks, took some training to be an ESL instructor of adults.

I bumped around a few downtown schools and then ended up at what was a great school (with the previous owner).  ESL international schools were a dime a dozen back 10 years ago and still are but to a lesser extent. Most pay poorly and have no benefits, etc.  ESL teachers of adults are for whatever reason on the lowest tier of teachers kind of thing.  Here in Canada anyway.  Vancouver because of its location on the Pacific Rim and its beauty attracts thousands of international students each year, with summer being the high season.  In 2004, I lucked into a school that had a union (not common in ESL schools then or now).  I was there for seven years, until 2011.  I had benefits and was making upwards of $40/hour and I was on the lower half of the seniority list if you can imagine.

And then, it all fell apart and fell apart quite badly.  I won’t go into the long and tedious and frankly really strange details, other than to say that the owner, who also had school in three other locations, wanted out. Some teachers bought the school (and those who did not lost their seniority.  I did not because I didn’t want to take such a huge risk with most of my savings).  They pretty much immediately flipped it to L. group.  The CEO made lots of promises that he did not keep.  The teachers, who had all ready taken a 25% pay cut to help save the school, took another 15% hit immediately with removal of all benefits.

I was laid off because I hadn’t bought into the school initially.  This has led me to a variety of different contracts at other places and more recently a whole lot of nothing unfortunately.

Anyway, four years after the L. group nastiness, the teachers got fed up.  Most who had been there when I was there were now gone but some are still there.  There are also a whole bunch of newer teachers who came in at a rather wretched wage.    So they are all fed up and formed a new union (the other one dissolved when teachers bought the school) but the L. group refuses to negotiate.  They are offering a 15 year pay grid with seriously something like an increase of a $1 in hourly pay every four years.  It is craziness but it is typical of many ESL schools.

So this week the teachers went on strike.  I popped by the picket line and saw some folks I still know.  It was surreal.

I honestly do tip my hat at them for trying.  I believe that they are desperately trying to make a difference for ESL schools in general and for themselves.

But here’s the rub:  the L. group, which is publicly traded on the TSX, has gone crashing down.  Stocks are down 80% (as per my very limited understanding of how the heck this works), the CEO fired – he dumped a million shares recently, and all in chaos.  I’ve been interneting around a bit and it seems some think that L. Group will keep the strike going as long as possible because they can’t afford to pay anyone anyway.  Students are arriving or are all ready here and asking for refunds but L. Group is refusing (which if not illegal is highly unethical).  Agents are scrambling and will obviously never send a soul to the school again.  Agents have all the power in the international school industry.

I believe the school has been on strike for three days now.  Strike pay it seems is more pay than the lowest level of teachers there are getting paid.  That kind of thing.

Surely teachers (in the ESL industry) get a cost of living pay raise every year, said a friend of mine.  I would say yes, this happens in about three downtown schools – the unionized ones that play decently.  When I was at the school when it was fair, I got nice raises every year.  That bubble burst though and I guess I haven’t really accepted it!  So I get the need of people to do what they have to do and hope what they have to hope.

I very luckily got a small to medium sized (depending on perspective) financial windfall a few weeks ago so my immediate financial concerns have been dealt with.  In a way, this keeps me in denial of my situation for longer but it is also quite frankly and quite simply a relief. I am definitely applying for other types of work but people with more experience in those types of work are, well, getting the interviews and the jobs.  I have an hour long tutoring gig with a student at lunch time today – and that $30 will feel like manna from heaven, not to be too dramatic.  And I do have a short and well paying three week gig in August (barring colds and other viruses and the like).  Beyond that into September I am not sure yet again.  And the fact that it is almost July and I am swimming during workdays . . .uh huh.

Anyway, sort of tangenting but sort of not.  The ESL industry had its heyday about ten years ago.  Then came the economic recession and more recently Harper and his cronies have instituted massive cuts to the industry (see VCC for more on that) and put into place student visa rules and immigration rules that have gutted the industry.  Most ESL teachers are like me – middle-aged and with lots of experience in, well, ESL teaching.  So it is tricky.  Many are getting out, going overseas or starting their own businesses.  Or, like me, wandering from contract to contract.

So back to the strike.  I honestly applaud the effort and will watch to see how it plays out.  I hope I am wrong that the school will shutter and/or be sold (although I am not sure that anyone would buy it at this point).  The sad irony remains that the teachers themselves sold the school to L. Group – but that was naivete and an attempt to save jobs and not something for me to be pointing my fingers at.

It is a rare industry where most of the employers (but not the ones that I choose to sub at) are paying less than what I was earning 15 years ago.  It is also disturbing to see so many people clinging to these jobs because there is nothing else out there.  I get it because I have done it (again, the schools that I sub at/have short term contracts with are the exception and I have nothing bad to say about them!).  It is so wearing and so sad.

So that’s it, wee fan base.  The beat goes on.

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