Western Canada Labor Battles Show Need for Solidarity

Thirty-eight thousand public school teachers in British Columbia voted on October 23 by seventy-seven percent to end a sixteen-day strike that had brought the province to the brink of a general strike.

The teachers, members of the BC Teachers Federation, walked off the job on October 6. Bargaining for a new collective agreement was going nowhere. They were demanding a fifteen-percent pay raise over three years and the right to negotiate their conditions of work and the quality of the education services they provide. In particular, they wanted to restore the right to negotiate over classroom sizes. The latter had been 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 and that 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 union’s 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 the union and its members could not 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 vast support from students, parents, and other union members. Public opinion polls showed that support for the strike was rising 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 throughout the strike. Students held rallies in support of the strike, and 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. Smaller walkouts and rallies took place that week in Prince George, the Kootenay region (southeast British Columbia), and the south-central region of the province (Kelowna/Kamloops). Some industrial unions joined the walkout in Kootenay. CUPE and the teachers were the main driving force in the rallies and sympathy strikes.

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 proposed that the government agree to discuss the issue of class sizes with teachers and that the wage freeze stay in place. Twenty 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. Radical cuts to social spending followed.

Leaders of the teachers’ union argued that the unity of teachers and the widespread support they had received will guarantee that the government will have to seriously address its 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,” teachers’ union president Jinny Sims told members. “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. 

First Signs of a Working-class Social Movement

The teachers strike brought to a head, once again, the simmering anger of working people in BC at deep cuts over the past twelve 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 funding of social programs. A sharp deepening of these cuts dates from the return to power in Ottawa of the Liberal Party in 1993. The party has won every election since. Provincial governments decide how federal social funds are spent. Every Canadian province has, since 1993 or earlier, seen broadly-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 .65 percent. The Liberals have closed 120 public schools. They have 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 BC government’s cuts to health care and attacks on salaries and work conditions of workers were much harsher than the attacks on teachers. In April/May 2004, forty thousand health care workers waged a nine-day strike. It, too, was declared “illegal” by the government and courts, and 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.”

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.

Telecommunications Workers Wage Bitter Strike

Fourteen thousand telecommunication workers at Telus Corporation in Alberta and British Columbia have just ended a strike that began in July. The workers, members of the Telecommunications Workers Union, fought a tough picket-line battle, facing down the violence and intimidation of union-busting “security” companies. Forty-six workers were fired during the strike for picket-line activity. The company was able to operate many of its services, but mobile picketing and active solidarity from other unions was causing headaches for it.

The company wanted deep cuts to jobs through contracting out, reductions in paid benefits, and a drastic reduction of the union’s strength in the workplace by gutting seniority rights, grievance procedures, and other workplace rights.

Strikers were thus shocked when leaders of the union announced in mid-October that they would submit for a vote a proposed settlement that concedes all the main issues of the strike to the company. They urged a “yes” vote. Negotiations that led to the agreement included the participation of Buzz Hargrove, national president of the Canadian Autoworkers Union. The cases of the forty-six fired workers would go to arbitration.

The proposal met with strong opposition in the union. At a mass meeting in Vancouver on October 24, some 4,000 workers gave a standing ovation to the report by the one member of the union bargaining committee who opposed the deal. Another striker received a standing ovation when he told the meeting, “We should stand up like the teachers.”

The proposal was turned down by an exceptionally narrow margin — 50.3 percent. Following negotiations that added a few cosmetic modifications to the rejected deal, union officials then organized another vote, this time using a mail-in ballot and with no mass meetings to discuss the proposal. A 64 percent vote in favor was announced on November 18.

Days before the second vote, Telus reported a sharp increase in third-quarter profits, earning Can $190 million.

Pitched Battle by Meatpackers

In Brooks, Alberta, 2,100 meatpacking workers, members of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, went on strike on October 12 at Lakeside Packers, owned by U.S.-owned Tyson Foods, the largest meatpacking conglomerate in the world. They waged a militant picket-line battle against efforts by the company to continue production with scab labor. Tyson said it would never allow a union into the plant. The union had been broken twenty years ago under previous owners.

The workforce at Lakeside is composed largely of first-generation immigrants to Canada. Most receive the lowest scale of wages, 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 outside of scheduled break times. “This is modern day slavery for me.”

The company 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 claimed that hundreds of workers and new-hires are eager to cross picket lines.

But workers 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 was sporadic. It stopped altogether as of October 25 when federal government meat inspectors refused to cross picket lines. Days later, the company sat down with the union and an agreement was reached. It was approved by 57 percent of  workers. The narrow vote is explained by the fact that workers who crossed picket lines were permitted by provincial labor law to cast a vote.

The agreement includes an immediate wage hike of $1 per hour, bringing the starting rate to Can $13. Over the next four years, there will be total gains of $1.30.

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 substantive reforms of the capitalist order, 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. 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 act.

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

Roger Annis is a member of the International Association of Machinists in Vancouver, Canada and may be reached at <rogerannis@hotmail.com>.