As the dust settles around the British Columbia teachers’ strike there is an uneasy calm hanging over the province. Two facts are immediately apparent – first, neither the government nor the labour movement were decisively defeated; and second, this was only a dress rehearsal for the bigger battle to come in the spring. The teachers inspired the province and rallied the entire labour movement behind them. After an illegal strike complete with demonstrations of tens of thousands and a rolling general strike, the BC Teachers Federation has returned to work with their heads held high, but without any real gains. All of the rhetoric spouted out of the mouths the BC Liberal cabinet ministers proved to be worthless. Faced with the full might of the labour movement, the BC Liars were forced to back down.
"We Don’t Negotiate with Criminals"
The BC Liberals once again removed the right to strike of a group of public sector workers. When it became clear that the province’s teachers were going to strike, the government passed Bill 12 extending their contract until June 2006, thus outlawing any strike action. This provoked not only the teachers, who walked off the job, but the entire labour movement that has faced four years of attacks from Gordon Campbell’s cronies.
As soon as the illegal strike by British Columbia’s teachers began, the government dug in their heels. They demanded that the teachers ‘respect the law’ and return to class before they would even sit down at the bargaining table. "The very day the union respects the court and returns to work, we will sit down and talk," said Labour Minister Mike De Jong. "The fact of the matter is, in a civil society, we must obey the law," added Premiere Gordon Campbell as he demanded that teachers return to work. This was the public line of the BC Liberals. One by one, Liberal Ministers repeated these calls like a broken record.
The rule of law
As far as the government was concerned this strike was no longer about any specific issue, but ‘the rule of law’. "We can disagree on laws that are passed and we often do," the premiere said at the legislature, "But the foundation of our society is that once a law is passed we obey it. We don’t obey the laws we like and disobey the laws we don’t like."
While Gordon Campbell insists on the sanctity of the law, the truth is that the law only reflects the current balance of power between the ruling class and the working class. The capitalist state will impose on the working class whatever anti-labour legislation they can get away with. As the class struggle heats up, the law is challenged and pushed one way or another. There are some laws that the labour movement will tolerate, and others that they will not. Bill 12 was clearly in the latter category.
When the BC Federation of Labour called a Victoria-wide general strike for Monday October 17, the ruling class was clearly alarmed. Various business organizations denounced the BC Teacher’s Federation and the BC Federation of Labour. President of the BC Chamber of Commerce John Winter said, "By engaging in this illegal protest they are sanctioning an illegal strike that is undermining the rule of law by openly defying our province’s highest legal authority, the B.C. Supreme Court."
The president of the Business council of BC Jerry Lambert made it clear that he was worried at the prospect of a general strike – "Organized labour in Canada generally has a good record of recognizing and respecting the law," he said, "the B.C. Federation of Labour’s actions mark a regrettable departure from this tradition."
The coalition of BC Business waded into the dispute – "The fundamental question is not ‘do you support teachers?’ or ‘are you angry at the government?’ The primary question we all need to answer is ‘Do we believe that the foundation of our civil society is respect for the rule of law?’" asked Chairman Kevin Evans.
The answer for Kevin Evans came on Monday in Victoria.
The power of the working class
On October 17 the province’s capital was closed for business; there were picket lines throughout the city. Every union shop in town was behind a picket line. Then very quickly the picket lines disappeared and everything was quiet at the legislature except for the sound technicians checking their sound system. While the government inside discussed unimportant and unrelated issues (like the importance of blueberries to BC’s economy,) Victoria’s working class was gathering at the other side of the city to begin their march. The march began at Centennial Square and snaked its way through the city. The roar of the crowd thundered through the streets as the march approached the legislature. It was an awe-inspiring sight. The capital city of British Columbia was shut down as a crowd of 50,000 marched on the legislature.
Jinny Sims, President of the BC Teacher’s Federation addressed the crowd, "Mr Campbell stop threatening us!" She demanded, "Stop trying to divide us. It will not work. We will not be broken!"
And she was right; the BC Teacher’s Federation was not broken. They were stronger than ever before. It was amusing to think of all of the comments from the government about the foundation of society being ‘the law’. It was clear on October 17, while the lawmakers cowered inside the legislature, that ‘the law’ was irrelevant and the real ‘foundation of society’ was on gathering on the lawn outside.
As the week progressed, solidarity action swept through the province. On Tuesday, the Canadian Union of Public Employees in Northern BC walked out and some other private sector unions spontaneously joined them. The BC Federation of Labour called another General Strike in the Kootenays for Wednesday, and another large section of the province shut down.
Although the government claimed that they were not willing to negotiate, on Tuesday they announced that mediator Vince Ready would be intervening. They claimed that he was simply fulfilling a role that he had already been appointed to, which was "to fix the broken bargaining system". But it was clear what was really happening; the government was backing down.
Vince Ready is British Columbia’s most notorious mediator. He has a reputation for coming up with deals that allow both sides to walk away holding their heads high. And that is exactly what happened. Vince Ready issued his recommendations on Thursday. They included an additional 20 million dollars to improve classroom learning conditions and 40 million dollars towards teachers benefits (a way of giving them a raise without actually raising their salary). The government wasted no time in agreeing to these recommendations.
The deal was certainly not a victory. There are no guarantees that the government will actually reduce class sizes, and all of the money promised only matches what the government saved in wages while teachers were on the picket line.
While this was all going on, there was confusion in the rank and file of the labour movement. The plan had been for General Strike on Friday in Vancouver and the Lower Mainland – the economic heart of British Columbia. But with a deal on the table, the BC Federation of Labour never made the call. The Canadian Union of Public Employees however, said they were going ahead with the walkout unless the BC Teachers Federation asked them not to. In general, the unions and the public were unsure whether they should go to work or not, and whether there would be a large scale demonstration in Vancouver.
There was obviously a lot going on in the backrooms at the BC Federation of Labour offices. Jim Sinclair, President of the BC Fed publicly called for members to remain on the job. Jinny Sims faced pressure from the media to put the deal to a vote. On Friday morning, after an all night meeting of the BCTF executive, Jinny Sims announced that the teachers would vote on the offer, and that the executive was recommending acceptance.
Storm clouds on the horizon
But the BCTF didn’t call off their rallies. Two demonstrations took place, one in Vancouver at the Pacific Coliseum and one in Cloverdale at Stetson Bowl. Thousands of CUPE members walked off the job in what turned out to be a one day public sector general strike.
The BC Federation of Labour didn’t attend the demonstrations. But there were speakers from the Hospital Employees Union, the Canadian Union of Public Employees and of course, the BC Teachers Federation.
It was clear that the reason for Friday’s rallies was not the teacher’s strike, but to mobilize for the spring when all of the public sector contracts run out. One of the most striking examples of this was the fact that the key note speaker at the demonstrations was not Jinny Sims, who spoke in the middle of the program, but rather CUPE President Barry O’Neill. The tone of the speeches was one of praise for the teachers but also of looking forward to big battles to come.
The BCTF’s leadership should not have recommended acceptance of a deal that merely re-allocates $100 million of the $150 million that the government saved on unpaid wages during the strike. Public support for the teachers was high and growing every day – this strike could have ended in a decisive victory. However, a lot of momentum was lost once the leadership recommended Vince Ready’s deal and the teachers had no choice but to accept the recommendation. The BCTF voted 77% in favour of returning to work and on Monday Oct 24, classes were back in session. Although the strike ended in a draw, many workers see it as a victory. The government was forced to negotiate and the teachers retained their ability to fight on. But most importantly, the province’s Labour movement had a practice run for what may be an even larger fight in spring 2006.
The next couple of months will be very busy for British Columbia’s Labour movement. The conventions of both the New Democratic Party and the BC Federation of Labour are happening in November; CUPE begins negotiations for thousands of public sector workers in January.
The capitalist class in BC is preparing an all-out attack on the rights of working people – most notable the right to free collective bargaining. The BC Federation of Labour and the New Democratic Party should prepare for this fight. If it is to be successful, both must give unconditional support to public sector workers in their fight to break Gordon Campbell’s wage restraint. An injury to one is an injury to all. Every attack against a union must be seen as an attack against the entire labour movement and responded to as such. Only by uniting the public and private sector workers can victory be assured. There can be no doubt that Campbell aims to break the back of the labour movement, but if we beat him, workers are just as capable of breaking the back of the BC Government.