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After five years of struggle in British Columbia, the anti-Campbell movement is cooling off. However, this is not because the movement has been defeated, but rather, Campbell’s attacks on the working class have been a complete failure. The prime motive for their aggressive tactics was to break the back of the labour movement. In this, the Liberals have failed. The attacks from the BC Liberal government have served only to radicalize the labour rank-and-file and discredit the bureaucratic layers of the leadership. Gordon Campbell’s plan has backfired. Rather than pacifying the province’s organized workers, the government has prepared the way for huge struggles in the future.

Although we originally expected a big confrontation between the labour movement and the government in BC this spring, it did not materialize. In the end, the government didn’t stick to its guns and instead moved to buy labour peace. The Campbell government offered significant concessions to most of the public sector. Using large signing bonuses and 5-year contracts, the government has attempted to pacify the workers until after the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Although none of the deals were great, the government stepped back from its previous class-war policy of wage cuts and freezes, privatization, and contracting out.

Change of Heart?

What is behind Campbell’s sudden change of heart? Simply put, they can afford it. BC’s economy is in better shape than in most of North America. A combination of an expanding shipping industry and a booming construction industry are bringing historically low unemployment levels to the province. The unemployment rate for May was only 4.7%. Of course, Campbell enjoys taking credit for the booming economy, but this boom is actually caused by external factors. BC’s shipping industry is racing to keep up with imports coming from China into the US and Canadian market. The ports are growing ever larger, and the railways and 18-wheelers are running ‘round the clock.

The booming housing market disproportionately affects the BC economy, not only causing a massive construction boom but also driving up the price of resources such as lumber. The four main pillars of BC’s economy right now are construction, manufacturing, resources, and shipping. Only the manufacturing sector is showing weakness as the Canadian dollar rises, but these employment losses are quickly absorbed by the rest of the economy. Many workers have found themselves laid-off from their job in manufacturing, only to find another job in residential construction after their first phone call. (The author speaks from personal experience in this matter.)

All of this has not only given the government some extra breathing room, but also cut across the class struggle for large layers of the working class. Many have found that they are suddenly able to keep their heads above the water after struggling for so long. There is a sense of optimism that hasn’t been felt in over a decade in British Columbia. The fact that this economic upswing is on incredibly shaky ground seems to be lost on everyone. The housing bubble could burst at anytime and China is preparing a massive crisis of overproduction.

But there is more to the government’s change in tactic than just increased revenues. Every time the Liberals attacked a union, they were met with ever increasing resistance. Our readers will undoubtedly be aware of the teachers’ strike last fall that brought the province to the brink of a general strike. Another major showdown with the public sector was too big of a storm for Campbell to weather. The BC Liberals bought labour peace because they couldn’t politically afford to do anything else.

Offensive Strike

Of course, it isn’t just as simple as throwing a big signing bonus on the table and tossing workers a few crumbs. There are still 14 outstanding public sector contracts waiting to be settled including, most notably, with the BC Teachers Federation. The teachers’ contract will expire on June 30. If a deal cannot be reached their $3700 signing bonus will expire with it. There is serious pressure to come to an agreement, but both the government and the teachers’ union are putting themselves on a war footing; they have both launched advertising campaigns to discredit each other. On June 8th, the teachers voted over 85% in favour of a strike, and are now building momentum. The Campbell government was alarmed by the massive public support for the teachers last fall and are maneuvering to prevent a similar situation from developing.

The struggle of the BC teachers is significantly different than the previous public sector strikes. Fed up with years of wage restraints, the BCTF has gone on the offensive. They are demanding a 19% wage increase over three years. Teachers in BC are paid much less than their counterparts in Alberta and they are fighting to close this gap.

Teachers have not kept up with…
Inflation - since 1995 they have fallen behind by 4%. The employer's offer would have teachers falling even further behind inflation
Other professions - a nurse with a four-year degree starts at $49,344, while a teacher with a five-year degree starts at $38,400 in West Vancouver.
Other provinces - teachers in the Lower Mainland earn 20% less than their colleagues in Ottawa and Edmonton.” - www.bctf.ca

The government has dug in their heels and countered with a 10% wage increase over four years. This offer was unanimously rejected by a meeting of local presidents.

Last fall, the main issue in the teachers’ strike was class size. Many parents might wonder why this isn’t in the news in this round of bargaining. On April 27, the BC government introduced Bill 33. The bill limits class sizes to a maximum of 30 students; extra students can only be added with the teacher’s consent. It passed unanimously. This represents a massive victory for the teachers and the wider labour movement. It is unfortunate that the NDP didn’t make a bigger deal about it in the legislature and in the media. Gordon Campbell was allowed to quietly back down without causing too much of a stir.

A reflective mood

The summer will be a period of reflection for activists in the labour movement. There are many lessons to be drawn from the last five years. The massive mobilizations that shook British Columbia have left their mark. The working class has re-learned its strength, and the weaknesses that exist in the labour movement have been made more evident.

It is impossible to look back on the mass strikes of the last few years without considering the role the leadership of the unions has played. The hospital employees were betrayed by their own leaders. Just hours before a general strike was set to begin, the leaders of the BC Federation of Labour and the Hospital Employees Union held a press conference in the middle of the night to announce the sell-out. HEU members were stuck with a 15% wage cut and hundreds of jobs were contracted out. The members were not even allowed to vote on their own agreement. This left the anti-Campbell movement with a deep mistrust of the leadership.

There is a general feeling that the present leaders of labour are more interested in putting breaks on the movement than leading the fightback. This mood was expressed in the resolution passed by the BCTF convention prior to their strike stating that once the strike began, they wouldn’t go back to work until the membership had voted on an agreement. Here we see a leadership that is more in tune with its members. The BCTF is a role model for other unions in the province; militant democratic trade unionism is the way to victory.

Despite an intransigent leadership and a democratic union, many rank and file activists were disappointed by the way the strike in the fall ended. The BC Federation of Labour withdrew its support of the lower mainland day of action organized in solidarity with the BCTF. Though the previous days of action brought various parts of the province to a stand still, only CUPE walked off the job in Vancouver on the last day of the strike.

The resentment that has built up in the labour movement is entirely justified and one way or another, it will find its expression. In November, the BC Federation of Labour will hold its convention and there are rumors that there will be a credible candidate from the left to challenge Jim Sinclair’s leadership. If this materializes, it could mark a new beginning for the labour movement in British Columbia.

Punctuated Equilibrium

The labour movement now stands on a qualitatively higher level than five years ago. Although the general trend is towards stability, there will certainly be a number of conflicts over the next several months. Five years ago, a small strike would have been seen as just that, but the consciousness of the working class in BC has made a great leap since then. Now, there is a general understanding that there are no isolated struggles.

No workers’ movement proceeds in a straight line; even in a revolution there are periods of advance and retreat. For example, the Spanish Revolution spanned a period of 8 years from 1931 to 1939, and even had 2 years of black reaction immediately preceding the revolutionary advance of 1936. Similarly, Lenin commented that the Russian Revolution of 1917 would have been impossible if it was not for the lessons learned from the failed movement of 1905.

Though there may be a period of calm reflection in the labour movement, this cannot last. Events globally will not allow it. BC’s economic boom is far from stable. The contradictions inherent in the capitalist system (especially in this epoch of history) will force the working class back into struggle. A collapse in the Chinese economy, or the housing bubble, will affect BC very hard and the Liberals may find that they cannot afford the agreements they have just signed. When this happens, the movement will be armed with the experiences of the last five years. As impressive as the big strikes and demonstrations against Gordon Campbell were, they will pale in comparison to events in the future.



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