VIDEO: Langley teacher who fought and won 1939 bargaining battle honoured with plaque

Connie Jervis and 13 other teachers were fired after the school board refused to obey an arbitration order

In 1939, a 24-year-old woman was supposed to be ladylike and defer to authority, especially if she happened to be a school teacher.

But Connie Jervis, the president of the newly-formed Langley Teachers Association (LTA), had a stubborn streak.

So when the Langley School Board refused to pay a salary increase awarded under a new provincial law that called for compulsory arbitration of teacher wage disputes, Jervis and her fellow teachers fought back.

During the dispute, Jervis and other Langley teachers were fired, reinstated, demoted to remote schools and reinstated again.

The two-year battle over a pay increase of $42 a year ended in victory for the teachers and the firing of the intransigent school board.

This month, the late Jervis was honoured with a memorial plaque created by the BC Labour Heritage Centre, a union-sponsored initiative “committed to projects and partnerships that celebrate the stories of BC workers and their unions.”

Unveiled on March 6, the plaque will be installed in the entranceway of the Langley Teachers Association offices in Langley City.

The plaque describes how “a feisty group of Langley teachers — mostly women — stood up to threats, firings, forced transfers and public ridicule from their employer for insisting on their right to be paid their legally arbitrated salaries.”

Jervis was represented at the unveiling by her daughters, Barbara Winter and Peggy McLay.

Winter remembered her mother as an independent person and a strong personality.

“There’s a genetic stubborn streak” that runs in the family, Winter said.

McLay, who has spoken before about her mother’s courage in taking on pillars of the community with fierce opposition and little to back her up, recalled her as “a pioneer type … a pretty fabulous lady.”

Both daughters became educators themselves, Winter a professor at Simon Fraser University and McLay a teacher (recently retired) in the Langley school district.

Ken Novakowski, Chair of the BC Labour Heritage Centre, calls it “a very significant event in the history of, certainly the Langley Teachers Association, in the history of the BCTF and, I think, in the history of the labour community in British Columbia.”

During the dispute, the Langley School Board flatly refused to accept the arbitration board decision.

Board chair J.W. Berry called the 1937 law that provided for compulsory arbitration a “pistol to the head,” and said the teachers were being “obnoxious.”

The board fired Jervis and 13 other teachers over the salary dispute, but the dismissals were rescinded by the provincial Council of Public Instruction authority.

Then the board demoted five teachers including Jervis, and sent them to the most remote rural schools in the district.

The teachers refused to accept the decision and when classes resumed, they showed up at their original schools and sat at their desks in the classrooms where they had worked.

They were dismissed as “sit down strikers” by Vancouver newspapers, but the protest worked.

The Council of Public Instruction intervened again, ordered the teachers returned to their old jobs and this time, fired the entire school board.

Current LTA president Wendy Cook and LTA first VP Gail Chaddock-Costello oversaw the unveiling of the plaque at an association meeting to discuss the end of a more recent dispute, a 15-year legal fight between the B.C. Teachers Federation and the provincial government that went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.

That fight ended with the court ruling the province could not unilaterally alter class size and support staff guarantees in the B.C. Teachers Federation contract.

Chaddock-Costello said celebrating the outcome of the 1939 battle at a time when Langley teachers were also witnessing the restoration of their contract language was “a fantastic moment for us.”

“We think we’re pretty special in Langley to have had her (Jervis),” Chaddock-Costello added.

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