General Strike Begins in British Columbia
“There is a big difference between breaking the law and having a law created to break you, and the teachers of this province are not going to be broken!”—Jinny Sims, President of the BC Teachers’ Federation, speaking to a rally of thousands of striking teachers. Vancouver Canada, October 11, 2005.
In a matter of days, all of the contradictions that have been building over the last four years in British Columbia have come to the fore. Gordon Campbell’s mis-named Liberals have spent their time in power attacking the working class—slashing social programs, closing schools and hospitals, ripping up collective agreements and sending tuition sky-rocketing. This has been met with several waves of unrest. The workers of this province have fought back with demonstrations, strikes and occupations. The movement has passed through many different stages; the working class has learned from bitter experience. Now this battle is reaching new heights. The province stands on the brink of an all-out general strike.
It wasn’t long after the Liberals’ May re-election that the working class swung into action again in British Columbia. For years the public sector had been battling the BC Government’s cutbacks. But in recent months, the global crisis of capitalism has forced the ruling class to step up its attacks, affecting all sectors, and a strike-wave now gripped the private sector. It began in late June with truck drivers striking over high gas prices, effectively shutting down the ports. This ended in an important confidence-boosting victory. This was followed by a strike at the Tech Cominco smelter and the Telus lock-out, both of which are on-going (although Telus and the TWU have reached a tentative deal awaiting ratification). These struggles set the stage for the mammoth battle that British Columbia Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) was about to launch.
Everyone in the province knew that the province’s 42,000 teachers would soon be walking the picket line. On September 23, results of the strike vote were released. Teachers voted 88.4 percent in favor of a strike. But, most assumed that this would be rather short-lived and they would very quickly be legislated back to work. In a previous dispute, the BC Liberal government had declared teachers an essential service and removed their right to strike. Sure enough, on October 3, before the strike really even started, Bill 12 was introduced to extend the teachers’ contract until June 2006.
Instead of giving in, the BC Teachers’ Federation held meetings across the province to decide their next step. By the time the legislation was passed on October 6, the teachers had already taken another vote on whether or not to abide by the legislation. To the shock and horror of both the labor leaders and the government, the BCTF voted 90.5 percent in favor of an illegal strike. This mandate was even larger than the last. Campbell’s legislation had not broken the teachers, but enraged them. The teachers’ fight for decent pay and better learning conditions for students has now become a rallying point for the entire labor movement.
The Role of the Media
The province’s mass media immediately began a slander campaign against the teachers. Newspapers and radio shows denounced the teachers as common criminals. Radio stations carried clips of government officials appealing to teachers to cross picket lines. Newspapers printed editorials and letters to the editor condemning the teachers.
“Jinny Sims and any teacher who breaks the law should be immediately placed in jail”, demanded one such letter. “They would be defying the government that we elected to uphold the law. If the government doesn’t act firmly, it will simply be opening the door for all of our students to ignore or self-interpret all laws that they don’t like.”
Radio call-in shows obviously pre-screened callers and had lengthy shows dedicated entirely to bashing the teachers. But amidst all of this, polls continued to show increasing support for the wildcat strike. A poll was conducted October 6-7 showing clear support for the teachers:
“The BC Government should not impose another settlement on Teachers because unhappy Teachers with no say in their pay or their working conditions won’t be good for our education system and our students.” Strongly Agree 31.1 percent. Agree 35.9 percent. Disagree 16.9 percent. Strongly disagree 7.9 percent. Don’t know/refused 8.2 percent. “I’d support protests if the Campbell Government orders Teachers back to work without a wage increase or improvements in class sizes and working conditions.” Strongly Agree 25.9 percent. Agree 27.5 percent. Disagree 26.7 percent. Strongly disagree 11.5 percent. Don’t know/refused 8.3 percent.
This poll was taken as the wildcat strike was just starting. Now opinions seem to be hardening and support for the teachers growing. An October 11 rally at the Vancouver Trade and Convention Center drew at least five thousand supporters on short notice, but media reported much smaller numbers. The highest number reported by any newspaper was two thousand, and most media reported only a few hundred.
On October 13, The Province newspaper ran a story titled “Teachers begin to cross picketlines as union calls for member solidarity—Provincial government promises working educators protection.” It was made to look as though the teachers were fighting back against their “evil union.”
“In Vancouver, at least four teachers have crossed picket lines at schools, said district spokeswoman Yvonne Eamor. In Surrey, at least a dozen teachers have returned to schools, said district spokesman Doug Strachan. In Langley, up to 10 teachers have crossed the lines, said district spokesman Craig Spence. In Sooke, district spokesman Ron Warder said: “Three teachers have come to work at Belmont [Secondary] today.” But these numbers are almost insignificant and actually show the strength of the BCTF. Of the 42,000 members on strike in British Columbia, only a few dozen are crossing the picket lines. Any union would be pleased with that level of strength and solidarity.
Despite the vigorous attempts from the media to prop up the government and the “rule of law,” nobody believes a word they say. BC’s media has discredited itself completely.
The courts exposed
It is no accident that this dispute is facing bitter attacks from all sides. It is one thing to go on strike; it is another to do so illegally, ignoring legislation and court orders. This strike not only challenges Bill 12, but also the rule of law and the entire capitalist state. Such a challenge cannot go unnoticed.
With media and government demanding action from the courts, the BC Teachers’ Federation faced the judge on October 13. The government was asking for massive fines to be levied against the teachers. There was talk of arresting the leaders of the militant strike. But the court decided that none of this would do.
In a move that shocked everyone, the judge ordered the assets of the BCTF frozen. The Judge argued “The BCTF acts through its members to commit the contempt. It is apparent from the materials before me that the BCTF is using its assets to facilitate the continuing breach of the court order, in part by paying teachers.”
And therefore “The BCTF is restrained for 30 days from directly or indirectly using its assets to facilitate breach of the court order of October 6, 2005. In particular, the BCTF is enjoined from paying amounts to its members as “strike pay” or to otherwise compensate members for loss relating to breach of the order of October 6, 2005; from providing guarantees or promises to pay to protect members from such losses; from using its books, records and offices to permit third parties to facilitate continuing breach of the court order.”
The ruling effectively took the union under trusteeship. A monitor was assigned that would be given full access to the BCTF’s offices, accounts and records to insure that the order was being followed. And as an extra slap in the face, this monitor’s wages would be paid by the BCTF. This unprecedented move sent the labor movement in to a frenzy.
The ‘leaders’ of the labor movement
Until now, the British Columbia Federation of Labor had done everything in their power to keep things under control. Even the token demonstrations that were organized by them were just that. They were so poorly advertised that the posters didn’t even have the address of the rally location in Vancouver and used its technical name—Vancouver Trade and Convention Center rather than its commonly used name Canada Place. The posters did not even get posted, just sent by email. Despite this, thousands turned up.
This clearly caught the “leaders” off guard. The sound system was much too small so that the majority of the rally couldn’t hear the speeches. They clearly expected a much smaller turn out. But none of this dampened the spirits of the workers who immediately began chanting “General Strike! General Strike!” as Jim Sinclair, president of the BC Fed took the stage.
But this court ruling didn’t just slap the teachers with a fine; it threatened the very right of unions to exist in British Columbia. The message to the labor movement was clear—only compliant unions allowed. Now with mass pressure from below, the BC Federation of Labor was forced to act. On Friday October 14, they held a press conference to announce their first step. A nervous Jim Sinclair announced that a mass rally would take place at the provincial parliament buildings in Victoria, on Monday October 17. “We expect shutdowns throughout Greater Victoria as union members, supportive parents and community groups take part in the protest [against] Bill 12.” The president continued, “This is the first stage of action we are announcing in an effort to get a fair deal for teachers. We hope the government reaches out to do the right thing so we don’t have to make further announcements, but we have prepared a plan should the need arise and will update the public as necessary.”
The BC Federation of Labor has called a general strike in British Columbia’s capital for Monday, but it is also clear that this is only the first step. If the teachers are to be victorious, the strike must be spread. A one-day general strike in one city is a fantastic show of force that may scare the government into backing down. But it will not be enough to defeat them if they decide to stand and fight. This strike is no longer about the teachers, but the very right of unions to exist in British Columbia. The entire labor movement must respond collectively against this provocation. The BC Federation of Labor must call an all-out general strike to shut down the province. Not a wheel turns without the consent of the working class; we must make this government understand that.
Amidst all of this, the New Democratic Party is nowhere to be seen. BC NDP leader, Carole James has confined herself to criticizing the BC Liberal government and won’t come out in full support of the illegal strike. Initially she called on teachers to obey the law explaining that even though she opposed the legislation, once it was passed it should be respected. But Carole has refrained from condemning them outright.
Continuing along her path of distancing the party from the labor movement (a ridiculous idea as it is literally the same people running the NDP and the major unions), Carole James can be found in the crowd at demonstrations, but never at the podium.
Danger of a sell-out
The leadership of the labor movement has been dragged into a fight that they never wanted. But with the BC Federation of Labor’s convention only weeks away, they are hardly in a position to remain silent. Ever since Gordon Campbell’s Liberal’s were first elected to office in 2001, the union bosses have done everything in their power to keep the movement within legal and “safe” boundaries. The NDP has tried (unsuccessfully) to funnel the movement into an electoral battle. But all of these attempts have been in vain.
If the leaders of the NDP and the BC Labor Fed had an ounce of the courage displayed by BCTF president Jinny Sims, this battle could bring down the Liberal government. In fact, this is the only way it can be successful. A BCTF victory will either [cause the fall of] the government, or leave them so broken that they are incapable of ruling. But all of this necessitates a strong leadership capable of standing up to the pressure.
Despite mass pressure from below, there is no guarantee that Jim Sinclair and his rotten clique won’t betray the movement. This is certainly not lost on the rank and file of the unions. No one has forgotten the sell-out of the Hospital Employees Union strike in May 2004. The province was then brought to the brink of a general strike only to be sold out by the leaders. Hospital workers were slapped with a 15 percent wage cut and didn’t even get a chance to vote on their own contract. But the BCTF has taken steps to prevent this, showing that they are well aware of the danger. While the membership was voting on whether or not to take illegal job action, they also voted that they would not go back to work until they had voted to do so.
Militant democratic trade unionism is the only way to protect against a sell-out. But that is not just voting. If this strike is to be successful, the rank and file must have absolute control over their fight. Community support groups must be formed allowing the mass of the population to be drawn into the struggle. Workers must be prepared to continue even if the BC Federation of Labor executive tells them not to. This is the only guarantee of victory.
Capitalism in crisis
Around the world we see similar processes taking place. The capitalist system can no longer afford the kind of living standards it used to maintain. In every country without exception, we see massive battles either being prepared or played out. The ruling classes are doing everything in their power to drive down wages, privatize public assets, slash social services and squeeze every ounce of profit they can get out of an already squeezed working class. This is no accident; the anarchy of the “free market” is what is driving this race to the bottom.
This economic system creates the most horrific conditions, forcing billions to live in squalor, killing millions in imperialist wars and starving tens of thousands to death every day. It must be stopped. Only a democratically planned economy can replace this wretched system and provide a decent standard of living for everyone. The struggle of the teachers must be the first steps of a revolutionary movement to overthrow the capitalist system.
The Greatest of Victories, or the Most Terrible of Defeats
The consequences of the teachers strike will hang over the province for years. A defeat could have terrible consequences, demoralizing the labor movement. In this scenario the labor movement would not be prepared for the battle to come this spring when many other public sector workers’ contracts will expire. Every defeat will demoralize the working class even more and this cycle could go on for many years.
A victory however could break government and its big business backers. It is even very possible that Gordon Campbell’s rule would be untenable, forcing him to resign or call an election. This would strengthen the labor movement unimaginably, preparing them for even larger victories in the future.
This strike may go down in history as the decisive battle of the anti-Campbell movement. The government is prepared to do whatever they need to do break the labor movement. This they have proven time and time again. But despite all of the attacks, the legislation, the rhetoric, despite all of the court orders and injunctions and ripped up agreements, the working class is not defeated. On the contrary, today in British Columbia the labor movement is stronger than it has ever been.
The working class is ready to fight, but the weakest link is its leadership. These people are barely able to stand up to big business, let alone overthrow them. We can’t even trust them to represent our movement, let alone lead it forward. The capitalist system will perpetuate one fight after another until it has been overthrown. But to do this, we need a leadership that isn’t afraid to stand up and fight, a leadership that will point the way forward to socialism. Fightback! is fighting for and building this leadership, join us in the fight for socialism!
Spread the General Strike!
The report above was written by the Editorial Board of Fightback! A publication sponsored by Fightback for Socialism, a Canadian political formation.
—Fightback! (Canada), October 17, 2005