Western Canada Labor Battles Show Need for Solidarity

By Roger Annis

VANCOUVER, BC — On October 23, thirty-eight thousand public school teachers in British Columbia voted 77% to end a sixteen-day strike that brought the province to the brink of a general strike. Their strike and two others in western Canada that parallel it carry important lessons for those in Canada looking to resist the ruling class attacks on living standards, social services, and democratic rights.

The teachers, members of the BC Teachers Federation (BCTF), walked off the job on October 6. Bargaining for a new collective agreement was going nowhere. They were demanding a 15 percent pay raise over three years and the right to negotiate their conditions of work and the quality of the education services they provide. They want the provincial government to restore education funding at least to the levels prevailing in 2002, and, in particular, they want to restore the right to negotiate over classroom sizes, which are steadily rising as a result of cuts to education funding.

From the get-go, the Liberal Party government of Premier Gordon Campbell told teachers that they would receive zero percent salary increases over the next two years. Cutbacks to education spending would continue unabated. Within 24 hours of the strike beginning, it passed a special law, Bill 12, that imposed a new collective agreement containing the government’s harsh terms.

On October 10, a judge of the provincial court declared the strike to be in violation of Bill 12. Three days later, she issued a draconian ruling reminiscent of the British government’s moves to cripple the National Union of Mineworkers during the historic coal miners’ strike of 1984/85. The judge prohibited the union from using its funds to pay strike pay or fund other strike-related activity. She also ruled that neither the union nor its members could receive financial aid from other unions or individuals. Several days after that, she fined the union $500,000.

The vote to end the strike was held under the threat of further moves by the court, including outright seizure of the union’s financial assets and prosecution of its leaders for criminal contempt of court.

The strike generated wide support from students, parents, and other union members. Public opinion polls showed rising support for the strike the longer teachers held out. Twenty five thousand school support workers, most of whom are members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), respected picket lines. Students held rallies in support of their teachers. Parents and other union members joined picket lines and brought food and other gestures of support with them.

By the second week of the strike, other unions in the province began to weigh into the battle with rotating regional strikes and protest rallies coordinated by the BC Federation of Labor. Workers at most public services across Vancouver Island went on strike on Monday, October 17 and held a rally of twenty thousand in front of the provincial legislature in Victoria. Walkouts and rallies took place in smaller centers that week. CUPE members and teachers were the main driving force in these, but some industrial unions joined the walkout in the Kootenay (southeast) region of the province.

Public sector workers in Vancouver were poised to walk off the job in a vast display of solidarity on Friday, October 21, but the day before, a government-appointed mediator hastily announced a proposal to end the strike. He recommended that the government discuss the issue of class sizes with teachers and that the wage freeze would stay in place. Forty million dollars would be allocated to salary improvements for the lowest-paid teachers.

Leaders of the BC Federation of Labor immediately announced their support to the proposal and urged teachers to accept it. Solidarity actions planned for Vancouver were called off.

A day of solidarity went ahead nonetheless in the Vancouver region, under the auspices of CUPE. Municipal governments, universities and colleges, and other government services were closed that day, and two rallies drew 10,000 workers. The leaders of the BC Fed were nowhere to be seen.

Teachers debate the return to work

An intense discussion and debate surrounded the vote by teachers. Leading up to mass meetings of the union, many teachers voiced opposition to the agreement because of the long track record of the Liberal government in breaking promises. They cited the record of the government in tearing up the existing collective agreements of most unions in the public sector following its first election in 2001, followed by radical cuts to social spending.

BCTF leaders argued that the unity of teachers and the widespread support they had received had created conditions in which the government will seriously address concerns over class sizes and other consequences of cuts to education spending.

“We made advances. We have broken the zero (wage freeze) mandate and forced the government to admit there are problems,” BCTF president Jinny Sims said. “We will hold their feet to the fire”

Sims received a standing ovation from thousands of teachers gathered in Vancouver on October 23 to vote on the return to work.

Only the latest round of struggle

The teachers strike brought to a head, once again, the simmering anger by working people in BC at deep cuts over the past 12 years to education, health care and other social services.

The federal government has been the architect of these cuts through its control of taxation and the funding of social programs. A sharp deepening of these cuts date from the return to power in Ottawa of the Liberal Party in 1993. It has ruled in Ottawa ever since.

Provincial governments decide how federal social funds are spent. Since 1993 or earlier, every Canadian province has seen broad-based protest movements of unions, students, and other social rights advocates. In British Columbia, deep cuts to social programs were initiated by governments of the labor-based New Democratic Party in the 1990s and then deepened by the provincial Liberals after 2001. Since 1990, the average annual salary increase for teachers has been less than one percent. Since 2001, the Liberals have closed 120 public schools, cut several thousand teaching positions, and reduced many special education services as well as library and physical education programs. Average class sizes have increased.

The government’s cuts to health care sparked a movement by health care workers as sharp as that of the teachers and their supporters. In April/May 2004, forty thousand health care workers waged a nine-day strike against cuts to health services and deterioration of their jobs and conditions of work. That strike, too, was made “illegal” by the government and courts. When it was all over, the Hospital Employees Union was fined $150,000.

Only a few months before that, the 4,500 workers who operate the province’s vital coastal ferry system struck and — you guessed it — the courts ruled their action “illegal” too.

Both of these strikes won widespread support and active solidarity from other union members. That solidarity was deepened during the teachers strike. All three unions, and the broader labor movement, emerged stronger out of these experiences. But big challenges still remain because the government has not fundamentally altered its attacks.

Telecommunication workers reject deal to end strike

Fourteen thousand telecommunication workers at Telus Corporation in Alberta and British Columbia have been on strike since July and have just voted narrowly to reject a proposal to end their strike.

The company is driving for deep cuts to jobs through shifting work to low-wage sub-contractors and reductions in paid benefits. It wants to gut seniority rights, grievance procedures, and other rights in order to seriously weaken, if not destroy, the place of the union in the workplace.

The workers, members of the Telecommunications Workers Union (TWU), have fought a tough picket line battle, facing down the violence and intimidation of union-busting “security” companies. Mobile picketing and active solidarity from other unions is causing major headaches for Telus as it struggles to maintain production.

So it came as a shock to many strikers when leaders of the union urged a yes vote on a deal that conceded all the main issues of the strike to the company. (Negotiations that led to the deal included the participation of Buzz Hargrove, national president of the Canadian Autoworkers union.)

At a mass meeting in Vancouver on October 24, some 4,000 workers gave a standing ovation to the report of the one member of the union bargaining committee who opposes the deal. Another standing ovation was given to a member who told the meeting, “We should stand up like the teachers.”

The narrow margin in the rejection vote (50.3% to 49.7%) suggests that a large percentage of B.C. TWU members voted No, but their votes were offset in Alberta, where support for the strike was much weaker.

Pitched battle by meatpackers

In Brooks, Alberta, 2,400 meatpacking workers, members of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, went on strike October 12 at Lakeside Packers, owned by U.S.-owned Tyson Foods, the largest meatpacking conglomerate in the world. They have waged a militant picket line battle to resist violent efforts by the company to continue production with scab labor.

The workforce at Lakeside is composed of many first-generation immigrants to Canada. Wages are very low and there are frequent injuries on the job. Striking worker Iyob Meles told the Globe and Mail that workers are not allowed to go the washroom during work hours. “This is modern day slavery for me.”

The company has used violence and court injunctions to limit the effectiveness of pickets. Two company managers are facing criminal charges for attempting to run the union president off the road while he was driving on the highway. Tyson says that hundreds of workers and new-hires are eager to cross picket lines.

But workers have responded with a militant stand. “If they kill us, they can go in,” Meles told the Globe on the picket line as he stared down a vehicle filled with scabs.

Production at the facility has been sporadic. It stopped altogether as of October 25 when federal government meat inspectors refused to cross picket lines.

Broader solidarity needed

These three strikes are proof of the willingness and capacity of workers to resist the offensive of the employers and their governments. So how can we advance further and faster along such a path?

  • Broader strike solidarity is vital. The actions in solidarity with BC teachers were a solid example of what is required. The BC Federation of Labor should have continued the motion toward a general strike that began in Victoria, and in particular, it should have organized participation from the industrial unions. This would have strengthened not only the teachers’ strike, but also that of school support workers and municipal workers, members of CUPE. They are headed into tough negotiations in 2006 — the government says its wage freeze for public sector wages remains in place.
  • Strikebreaking must be fought head on. The bosses and governments are increasingly turning to violence, intimidation and legal emasculation of the unions to advance their class interests. Workers at Telus and meatpackers at Lakeside Packers need more active and effective solidarity than what they have been getting.
  • Appeals by unions to courts are less and less effective as the courts increasingly reveal they are not neutral arbiters but the agencies of the capitalist class. Such appeals should not substitute for active mobilization and solidarity, for, ultimately, this is the only force that can win class battles. We must also vigorously combat the increasing attacks by courts on the unions, such as the fine imposed on the BCTF.
  • The unions and the broader working class movement need a strategy to challenge the political rule of the capitalist class. The power to change and improve society ultimately lies in wielding governmental power. The election of NDP governments does not solve this problem because that party is dedicated to a politics of compromise and appeasement. It does not campaign for genuine reforms, leave alone for a fundamental change in society.

The unions need a strategy of political action that is independent of the capitalist class. Yes, we must challenge the NDP to act in workers interests. That is why the election of NDP governments can advance the struggle — because it allows a stronger challenge to their claim of representing workers’ interests. But we must also challenge every capitalist government to protect workers who come under attack. And demonstrate how we would do so if, and when, the capitalist governments fail to do so.

Such measures will help us take forward the positive fighting spirit so evident in the current battles.