Working People Take Aim at Hated Government in B.C.

By Roger Annis

This article, by Socialist Voice co-editor Roger Annis, was first published in the April 5 issue of Seven Oaks magazine.

Working people across the province of British Columbia are eagerly anticipating the opportunity to throw the Liberal Party government of Premier Gordon Campbell out of office on May 17, the date of the upcoming provincial election.

The B.C. Federation of Labor has launched a “Count Me In” campaign to canvass and mobilize union members in support of the opposition New Democratic Party. It has hired six organizers to conduct this campaign, aiming to reach every workplace in the province.

Members of the NDP are hitting the streets and neighborhoods to talk to voters and distribute a pre-campaign flyer that opens with, “Gordon Campbell has run a one-sided government that helps the powerful, but squeezes middle class people and working families, and punishes the most vulnerable. It’s a trail of broken promises.”

Meanwhile, the pro-business, anti-NDP campaign is beginning to heat up. The first blast was fired on February 28 by the chief executive officers of the largest computer technology companies in B.C. They held a press conference to state that future growth and investment in their industry will be jeopardized if the NDP is elected. They worry that the NDP will cancel or tinker with the myriad of tax breaks and handouts that the Liberal government has provided the industry.

Anger at the record of Campbell government

Since its election in 2001, the Liberal government has made savage cuts to the rights and living standards of the working class in British Columbia:

  • Hospitals have closed, waiting lists for treatments are longer, service and cleanliness within hospitals has declined, the cost of premiums has risen by fifty percent (to $108 per month for a family), the number of long-term care beds for the elderly has declined, and the conditions of work for many health care workers have drastically declined.
  • One hundred and thirteen elementary and secondary schools have closed since 2001, and there are 3,500 fewer teachers. Classroom sizes are up, and there have been sharp reductions in library services and services to special needs students such as Aboriginals and the physically handicapped. Spending cuts by local school boards leave students and parents paying for many services and supplies.
  • The Liberals lifted a freeze on post-secondary tuition fees that had been in place for six years during the preceding NDP government. The result has been a seventy percent rise in fees. Financial aid to needy students has also been cut.
  • $881 million has been cut from the so-called misery ministries–Human Resources; Children and Family Development; and Community, Aboriginal and Women’s Services. Almost 100,000 people have been thrown off the welfare rolls. Legal aid services to the poor have been cut, and eliminated altogether for family law cases. The hardest hit in these cuts have been Aboriginal people and poor women.

Several tens of thousands of jobs in government services have been eliminated by the Liberals, and wage freezes have been the norm for those who have kept their jobs. To implement these cuts, the new government tore up existing collective agreements with the affected unions, something which it explicitly stated it would not do during the 2001 election campaign. It also outlawed the right to strike for teachers.

The union hardest hit by these cuts has been the Hospital Employees Union. Thousands of its members have lost their jobs as services they performed were contracted out to private companies paying a few dollars per hour above minimum wage.

The most exploited workers in the province—youth, and agricultural workers—have also felt the wrath of the Liberals. Changes to the province’s labor code strip away protection to agricultural workers in many areas such as hours of work and payment for statutory holidays and overtime. A new slave-labor minimum wage for youth allows employers to pay $6 per hour to workers with less than 500 hours of verifiable lifetime work experience. (The full minimum wage is $8.)

Money for the rich

The wealthy class has enjoyed a tax-break bonanza. The first act of the new government was to implement tax reductions totaling nearly $1.5 billion. Taxpayers earning less than $30,000 per year—almost one million people—shared $181 million of those reductions, while the 8,200 richest people in the province—those earning $250,000 or more–shared $191 million. A blizzard of new fees or fee increases for government services have more than cancelled out any tax relief that lower income people may have received.

Another bonanza for the rich is looming on the horizon, in the form of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver/Whistler. The federal and provincial governments will be shelling out billions of dollars of tax revenue to build and operate the Olympic facilities. Companies engaged in construction, engineering, transportation, tourist accommodation, and real estate will make a killing from this, while desperately-needed social services will continue to be neglected.

Strikes and protests

The government’s attacks have not gone unchallenged. Health care workers staged strikes and protests soon after the election of the Liberals. Teachers organized protests and strikes in late 2001 against wage freezes and cuts to education services, culminating in a walkout of 46,000 on January 28, 2002. Ten thousand community service workers struck a few months after that.

In late 2003, more than 4,000 members of the ferry workers union closed down the vital coastal ferry network for four days to protest wage freezes and the threat of job losses. For two of those days, they defied special anti-strike legislation.

The most spectacular job action against the Liberals occurred in late April, 2004 when more than 40,000 health care workers went on strike for seven days. Thousands of workers in other industries walked off the job in solidarity, to the point where the province teetered on the edge of a general strike on May 3. At that point, officials from the major unions in the province called off the strike. (For background to this strike movement, see Socialist Voice #3 and Socialist Voice #5).

Many local protests marked the years of the Liberal regime. In the summer of 2004, residents of the small town of Forest Grove in the B.C. interior occupied their elementary school after the local school board announced it would be closed. Plans to privatize the Coquihalla Highway had to be called off by the government in the face of stiff opposition.

Recent actions are a hopeful sign that victims of the Liberals’ policies will not be silent during the election. Residents of the town of Lytton are campaigning for the reopening of their local hospital. Its services have been reduced to little more than that of a first aid station.

Hundreds of residents of the Queen Charlotte Islands, off the coast of northern B.C., have closed down logging operations for two weeks now at two locations. They are saying “No!” to the environmental destruction by planned logging operations and are demanding that no logging, mining or other resource extraction permits be granted by the government without first negotiating with islands’ population, especially its Haida aboriginal people.

NDP platform

In the upcoming election, two parties will vie for the vote of socially-progressive people. The New Democratic Party is the majority party of the working class. Most trade unions are affiliated to the party. The unions play a central role in its policy making.

The NDP governed the province from 1991 to 2001. In 2001, its vote dropped from 40 percent in the preceding election to 22 percent. It won only two seats out of 79. Today, it is running neck and neck with the Liberals in pre-election polling.

The Green Party is a rising political force that taps into widespread concern over the practices of resource-extraction industries and other causes of decline in the natural environment. Its vote rose from 2 percent in 1996 to 12 percent in 2001.

The NDP says it will not issue an election platform until one month before the election. But the outline of its program is already clear. Leader Carole James has said that the party will not reverse the policies implemented by the Liberals. “I’ve been clear from the start that you can’t turn back the clock four years,” she told the Vancouver Sun on February 28. “We won’t be rolling back any of the tax cuts that have been given.” She told the Sun that complaints from business about NDP policies “come from a lack of information and a lack of research.” She argues that her party’s policies will be business friendly.

James gave a similar message to nurses when their union met earlier this month and announced a political campaign leading up to the election. Explaining that 1,300 acute-care hospital beds and 4,000 long-term care beds have been closed by the Liberals, the union wants an end to bed closures and urges construction of facilities for 1,000 new long-term care beds.

Carole James responded to this demand by stating, “I am not interested in signing on to things that are not costed.” The NDP has said it would provide 1,000 long-term care beds by reopening some of the closed facilities.

James is seeking to distance the NDP from its trade union base. Shortly after her election as party leader in 2003, she struck a committee to come up with recommendations to weaken or end union affiliation to the party. But opposition to this course resulted in a deadlock on the committee.

Green Party alternative?

The Green Party in B.C. describes itself as “Fiscally conservative, socially responsible”. While it posits itself as a party that would curb the environmentally and socially destructive practices of big business, its program raises few demands that would challenge the domination of big capital. In fact, the Greens pride themselves on a political orientation that aims to convince big business that socially progressive policies are in its best interests.

The Greens supported the hospital workers strike in 2004, but its platform has no proposals to reverse the destruction of union and social rights that is the legacy of the Liberal government. It supported the deal that ended the strike and resulted in thousands more union members losing their jobs to privatization.

The Greens advocate measures that would make it illegal for working people, through their unions, to support a political party such as the NDP.

The Greens’ proposals are no better than those of the NDP and often worse. More important, they lack the NDP’s overriding positive feature: the web of bonds that link the NDP to the B.C. labor movement and working class. In other countries where Green parties have been elected, such as Germany, they have entered capitalist governments and carried out policies identical to the big business interests they claim to oppose.

World events: a “provincial” issue too

The Canadian government is playing an increasing role in imperialist military adventures abroad. Canada has 3,000 troops currently engaged in the imperialist occupation of Afghanistan. It was a central actor in the coup against the constitutional government of Haiti last year. It supports efforts to legitimize the puppet occupation-government in Iraq, and it is party to the international gang up against the peoples of Palestine and Iran.

The NDP and its supporters should join in solidarity with the victims of this new imperialism. The provincial election campaign will be a time of heightened political awareness, so it’s a time to convince people that we have common interests with those who are under attack from the Canadian government and its allies.

We can join with those in Iraq and Haiti who are fighting the illegal and repressive foreign occupations of their countries. Canadians have a special responsibility to act in solidarity with the people of Haiti because the Canadian government was party to the February 29, 2004 coup in that country.

We have much to learn from those in other countries who are showing a way forward in the fight for a just society. That means supporting and learning more about the socialist system created in struggle by the people of Cuba. It means acting in solidarity with the people of Venezuela as they mobilize to create a new society of social solidarity.

Needed: political power for working people

The attacks on social and political rights in British Columbia are part of a broader pattern, nationally and internationally. Employers are increasing their attacks on the working class and other exploited classes and peoples in order to shore up declining profit rates and deal blows to rival competitors in other countries.

The government in Ottawa has set the lead in Canada for these policies. Provincial governments have been willing and enthusiastic partners, including the two NDP governments that ruled British Columbia from 1991 to 2001. With only a few exceptions, such as a six-year freeze of post-secondary tuition fees, the NDP governments’ actions were indistinguishable from their counterparts in other provinces. Big cuts to social welfare and health care began under the NDP, only to be deepened by the Liberals.

This ruling class offensive will not be stopped by electing a provincial NDP government pledged to keep things as they are. It will take a mighty wave of working-class struggle, expressed in strikes, street protests, and political organizing.

In this election, working people will vote for the NDP in their tens and hundreds of thousands, and every class conscious worker should join them in this effort. A defeat of Campbell’s Liberals will encourage and strengthen the struggles that have been waged against its policies. But if the NDP is elected, we must challenge it to break with the attacks by Ottawa. We will need more movements like the strike last year of B.C. hospital workers or the massive student strike movement that is shaking the province of Quebec right now.

This is not a simple task. It is the basic challenge faced by the unions today—how to replace the existing capitalist governments with a government of working people that is not simply a “lesser evil” but a government that rules on behalf of working people and refuses to cater to the privileges of the wealthy minority.