Some 1,000 government workers organized with the British Columbia General Employees’ Union (BCGEU) in the liquor and cannabis distribution sector have been on strike since August 15. The main demand of the union is for wage increases to keep pace with rising inflation, with the BCGEU specifically demanding a cost-of-living-adjustment (COLA) agreement.
While the B.C. NDP has governed under the slogan “making life more affordable for everyday people”, it has so far refused the union’s demands for a COLA agreement and offered wage increases well below the rate of inflation. This sets the stage for a potentially major conflict between B.C.’s public sector workers and the B.C. NDP, which is supposed to be the party of labour.
The strike by the BCGEU, which represents 33,000 government workers, is specifically over wage increases in the face of the growing cost-of-living crisis. After their contract expired earlier this year in April, the BCGEU proposed a two-year deal with a five per cent general wage increase or COLA protection that would guarantee that wages at least match the rate of inflation—whichever was higher.
The B.C. NDP government initially offered only a 5.5 per cent wage increase over three years. This would be lower than the usual annual average inflation rate of two per cent, and represents a massive wage cut when inflation is currently around seven to eight per cent. In response, members of the BCGEU voted 95 per cent in favour of strike action.
The government then tried to bypass the union and sent a deal directly to members offering a 10.99 per cent pay increase over three years, as well as a one per cent cost-of-living adjustment. A $2,500 signing bonus was also offered.
The B.C. NDP government argued that this was “the most generous offer in at least 30 years” and that it was much more than offers made to public-sector employees in Alberta and Ontario. While this may be true, this is a shameful position for an NDP government to take. It might be the most generous offer in 30 years, but this speaks more to how bad previous deals were than to how good the present offer is.
As was pointed out in The Georgia Straight, “The government’s own history of BCGEU wage increases shows how minuscule its salary hikes were over the last two decades, as they also were for nurses, teachers, and the entire public sector. For all that time they’ve been asked to suck it up and keep their wage demands in check. Now, they’re being asked to accept wage hikes that might amount to a salary cut, net of inflation.” It should be noted that those words were written by Martyn Brown, a former campaign director for the B.C. Liberals and long-time chief of staff for former B.C. Liberal premier Gordon Campbell. He is no friend of the working class and participated in a government dedicated to austerity and attacking public-sector workers—a government responsible for many of these bad deals. But even he has been forced to acknowledge the “miniscule” wage increases and the fact that the NDP’s proposal amounts to a wage cut.
Offers made and accepted by public-sector workers in Alberta and Ontario have not been very good either. In January of this year, nurses in Alberta accepted a deal with a wage increase of 4.25 per cent over four years. In June, Alberta teachers approved a new contract with a 3.75 per cent wage increase over two years. With inflation rates being what they are, these wage increases are not wage increases at all, but represent a wage cut while the cost of living increases.
Public sector wage increases in Ontario have been frozen at one per cent a year by the Ford government since 2019. This too is an effective wage cut even when inflation is at its usual rate of two per cent a year—nevermind now with current inflation rates. It’s not exactly difficult for any other province to offer public sector workers a better deal than this.
The legislation capping public-sector wage increases in Ontario is set to expire this year. While the Ford government has said that teachers for example will be offered more than a one per cent wage increase in upcoming contract negotiations, one can seriously doubt that workers will be offered an agreement with COLA guarantees by a Conservative government. It shouldn’t be difficult for an NDP government to offer better deals to workers than this.
Labour Militancy and the BCGEU
There is a long history of militant labour traditions in British Columbia, going all the way back to Ginger Goodwin and the great miners’ strikes of the early 20th Century. But things have been quiet on this front since the illegal Hospital Employees’ Union (HEU) strike and wildcat strikes in 2004.
It should be noted that the BCGEU is generally not considered a part of these militant traditions. Martyn Brown, in his article in The Georgia Straight even acknowledges this.
“Also noteworthy is that the BCGEU has been one of B.C.’s least militant unions—especially when the NDP has been in power. It has only resorted to strike action twice in the last 40 years: the last time, in 2012, with limited job action against Christy Clark’s B.C. Liberal government; and eons before that, in 1983, as participants in the general strike against Bill Bennett’s Social Credit government.”
Why does the BCGEU now find itself at the forefront of the fight against inflation and for COLA? It’s because of the growing mood of anger amongst rank-and-file workers. This pressure has forced the BCGEU leadership to consider COLA as a fundamental line in the sand. Workers are finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet. The costs of housing are sky high, especially in places in B.C., and the high inflation rate is making everything that much more acute. Everything from gasoline to food is much more expensive. A paycheck simply doesn’t go as far as it used to. The BCGEU’s president even said that “Our members have been crystal clear since day one that their priority this round of bargaining was cost of living protection for their wages.”
Inflation has dipped slightly across the country from 8.1 per cent in June to 7.6 per cent in July. However, B.C. is the only province in the country where inflation has actually gone up over that same period—from 7.9 per cent to 8.0 per cent.
The real purchasing power of workers’ wages has been stagnant or even falling for years. As we explained in a previous article, inflation in Canada has reached 8.1 per cent—a rate not seen in nearly 40 years. Wages have increased by less than half this amount, by 3.1 per cent. This means that workers have objectively suffered a five per cent wage cut in the last year.
These wage cuts due to inflation have hit the organized working class and public-sector workers harder than those that are not unionized and those in the private sector. In an article published by the Toronto Star in late June of this year, it was explained that,
“While the latest jobs report from Statistics Canada revealed that wage gains for permanent workers reached 4.5 per cent in May, Consumer Price Index data for that same period showed overall inflation rising to 7.7 per cent. In short, workers are making less money…
“For public sector workers, wages have increased only 1.8 per cent since last year, while private sector employees have seen overall growth of 4.9 per cent over the same period. Similarly, unionized employees have seen average wage increases of 2.3 per cent while non-unionized members have seen increases of 5.1 per cent.”
This same pattern can also be seen in British Columbia. As reported in The Georgia Straight “Statistics Canada reports that in British Columbia, the average wage for nonunionized permanent employees increased by 6.63 percent from July 2021 to July 2022, as compared to only 3.07 percent for those covered by union agreements.”
The bare minimum demand that the unions and the NDP should be fighting for is COLA agreements for all workers. While union leaderships across the country have been selling out their workers, it is also a total scandal that the NDP, across the provinces and federally, has not been campaigning and fighting for wage increases and COLA agreements—not just for unionized public-sector workers, but for all workers across the board.
Union leaderships across the country, despite strong strike mandates and plenty of momentum with high support amongst the public, have repeatedly caved in and accepted wage increases below inflation. In addition to the teachers and nurses in Alberta mentioned above, CUPE New Brunswick accepted a deal last year with a wage increase of only two per cent a year, plus a 25-cent-an-hour raise, over a five-year contract.
The Concordia University of Edmonton Faculty Association (CUEFA) in Alberta also signed a deal with wage increases below inflation. As reported by the Athabasca University Faculty Association (AUFA), Concordia faculty members signed a four-year deal with a 1.5 per cent cost-of-living adjustment only in the last year of the deal (in 2024), meaning it is set at zero per cent for the first three years of the deal. The overall salary adjustments amount to between 4.39 per cent to 6.85 per cent, but even AUFA acknowledged that while the wage increases were greater than those for other public-sector workers (teachers and nurses), “as important as CUEFA’s salary gains are, they’ll still likely result in a modest net loss of CUEFA members’ purchasing power over the life of the agreement… What this means is that the purchasing power of the maximum salary that CUEFA members can earn will be significantly eroded by inflation.”
Workers in the BCGEU have seen these deals that effectively amount to wage cuts and are refusing to accept a similar deal. As we pointed out previously, workers are increasingly not willing to put up with wage cuts and will not allow their standard of living to drop without a fight. BCGEU members have also seen a rise in labour militancy—from the strike wave last year in the United States (Striketober) and the wave of unionization at Amazon and Starbucks, among others.
Furthermore, BCGEU workers saw how the Sea-to-Sky transit worker strike concluded. This strike, involving around 90 workers, was the longest strike in B.C. history. As reported by the CBC, “The deal calls for a pay raise of 13.5 per cent over five years plus a signing bonus, as well as a cost of living adjustment that will see workers paid a top-up if growing costs of living exceed the workers’ pay raises.”
The CBC article quoted Stephanie Smith, president of the BCGEU saying that the deal was “promising” for the workers she represents. Smith also said that “Our members in the public service and within other collective agreements within the public sector told us that they need to see cost of living adjustments and inflation protections for them to ratify an agreement.” This shows the determination of the BCGEU workers to fight to protect their wages and standard of living.
With the NDP in power in B.C., workers in the BCGEU and other public sector unions should have reasonably expected the Sea-to-Sky agreement with its COLA component to be a precedent in bargaining for their own collective agreements. After all, the NDP is supposed to be the party of labour. At the very least, the NDP should be favourable to wage increases for all workers and it should support COLA agreements.
But this expectation turned out to be unreasonable because the B.C. NDP presents itself, and has acted, not as the party of labour, but as the most efficient managers of capitalism. Following the logic of being the managers of capitalism, the B.C. NDP government rejected the demands for a COLA agreement and offered a wage increase amounting to less than half of today’s annual inflation rate.
Why? The reason is not hard to see. The HEU and the B.C. Teachers’ Federation are currently in bargaining for new contracts. The B.C. Professional Employees Association (PEA), covering some 1,200 public-sector workers, also recently issued a strike notice. The B.C. Nurses’ Union has put its bargaining on hold until later this fall.
The government has estimated that a one per cent increase for all unionized public-sector workers in B.C. (nurses, teachers, public servants, etc.) would cost approximately $310 million per year. With multiple public-sector unions currently negotiating or bargaining at some point this year, the B.C. NDP is concerned that they could all end up demanding COLA agreements.
While the HEU was initially presenting the government’s offer in a favourable light, including an indication that it was finding agreement on proposals the BCGEU had rejected (in all likelihood meaning wages and COLA), it put negotiations on hold while the BCGEU was taking job action.
Shortly after the BCGEU job action started, the B.C. Teachers’ Federation said that “the funding government has made available falls far short of what is required to address the needs of our members … Whether the employer comes with sufficient funds and a willingness to bargain important issues like salary and workload will inform how the rest of the week proceeds.” The B.C. PEA acting director has said that “the union is seeking a wage increase that reflects soaring inflation and the increasing cost of everything from rent to groceries.”
If all public-sector unions in B.C. were to secure COLA agreements for their workers, meaning wage increases to match inflation at seven to eight per cent per year, this would cost over $2 billion per year. From the perspective of the capitalists, this would be too much. It would be too much too for an NDP trying to present itself to the capitalists as “responsible” managers of capitalism.
While the NDP government has insisted that COLA agreements for public-sector workers would cost too much, it has been pointed out elsewhere that the government has the money to give public-sector workers a decent pay raise. Besides, a COLA raise for the 400,000 public-sector workers at 10 per cent would amount to $3.1 billion a year. This is the same amount as the outstanding liability fracking companies have amassed through unused Deep Well Royalty Credits, which is essentially a tax handout given to gas corporations.
In 2020-21, the B.C. NDP subsidized fossil fuels by $1.3 billion, an amount which is set to increase to $1.8 billion by 2023-34. In 2020-21, the province raised $2.22 billion in natural resource royalties, which sounds like a lot, but $2.49 billion was raised from post-secondary education fees alone. In 2019, the BC forestry industry generated $13.3 billion in GDP, but in 2021 only $1.12 billion was derived from royalties. The wealth is there to pay necessary wage increases–it’s just expropriated by the capitalists while workers are attacked by their own governments.
Some 400,000 public-sector workers in five of the big unions (The Hospital Employees Union, the Health Sciences Association, the B.C. Teachers’ Federation, the B.C. branch of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, and the BCGEU) will be at the bargaining table this year. This does raise the prospect of multiple public-sector strikes this year in B.C. It even raises the prospect of a public-sector general strike to secure COLA agreements.
In fact, this is what the public sector union leaderships should be organizing towards. A common front of public-sector unions should be established to fight for fair deals, COLA agreements and guarantee solidarity actions in the event of strikes. The best way to secure decent agreements and wage increases for the workers is determined, militant action, and general strike action by public-sector workers would bring the government to its knees.
But here we see the timidity of the union leaders. There are no signs of a real common front between the public-sector unions. Despite drawing a line in the sand over COLA, even the BCGEU strike has been rather timid. Of the 33,000 workers in the union, only some 1,000 in liquor and cannabis distribution were taking targeted job action. Even when strike action was escalated, it didn’t include setting up more pickets or job action by more workers, but was limited to an overtime ban of all BCGEU employees (with the exception of members working for the B.C. Wildfire Service). Of course, these measures can be justified depending on the circumstances, and they may be enough for the BCGEU to achieve its demands. However, an overtime ban and other work-to-rule measures could have been taken before picket lines went up, and strike escalation could have involved bringing more workers to the lines. These and other much more concerted and militant labour actions would surely achieve the same results, only faster.
The future of the NDP
Despite the escalation by the BCGEU, the NDP has continued to dig in its heels. The media has played its role and focussed on shortages and rationing, playing up the anger over the strike of certain customers at liquor and cannabis stores. The B.C. NDP may be waiting to see if public opinion turns decidedly against the strike and the union. This is a clear attempt to scare the BCGEU leadership into backing down on the demand for cost-of-living increases. As well, business leaders are demanding the government declare liquor and cannabis an “essential service” in the hopes that the NDP will use legislation to end the strike.
Having drawn a line in the sand over COLA and mobilized for strike action, the union leadership will find it difficult to back down. They will also find it difficult to convince union members to accept anything other than a COLA agreement. If the strike goes on long enough, the NDP government could even introduce back-to-work legislation. This would be nothing short of a scandal, and an outright betrayal. Unless the B.C. NDP government accepts the BCGEU’s demands for a COLA agreement, one side or the other will need to betray the workers in order to bring the strike to an end. If the COLA demand is not met, either the NDP will eventually legislate the workers back to work, or the union will end up proposing that a bad deal be accepted by BCGEU members.
A serious conflict between the NDP and the unions in B.C. could mean trouble for the party, not just in British Columbia but across the country. It has been reported that B.C. NDP membership has dropped from around 20,000 to 11,000 under Horgan’s leadership. This is a significant drop in membership and the party has been reduced to a rump of its former self.
It’s not hard to understand why party membership has tanked under Horgan. The NDP under Horgan could not be described as “left” by any stretch. It ran its election campaigns on a slightly left-of-centre program, but has failed to deliver on even these promises. What’s more, it has also openly betrayed the environmental and Indigenous struggles on numerous occasions.
There was considerable noise on social media about people ripping up NDP party cards following the attacks by the Horgan government on activists at Fairy Creek and the Wet’suwet’en. Moreover, the NDP has presided over the opioid crisis, the housing crisis, homelessness crisis, the doctors shortage, the ferries crisis, heat dome deaths, poor disaster management in the flooding last year, logging of old growth forests, museum scandals, and so on. All this and more are all adding up to a mood of deep discontent in the province.
With the loss of members, the NDP has little active support. Its main base of support now really rests with the union bureaucracies. If there is a serious conflict between the public-sector unions and the NDP, the NDP stands to lose this last bastion of support. Having betrayed everyone that supported them to whatever degree, the NDP could find itself with a tiny membership and no points of social support, leaving open questions as to the future of the party.
A crisis in the provincial NDP in B.C. would have a knock-on effect in the party throughout the country. Fault lines are already visible in the NDP—over questions such as pipelines and the environment as well as Indigenous rights. When the B.C. NDP sent in the RCMP to attack the Wet’suwet’en last year, the Alberta and Ontario NDP openly supported the Wet’suwet’en. As we wrote at the time,
“While an open fight has not yet erupted in the NDP over the question of Indigenous rights and specifically over the Wet’suwet’en struggle, a reckoning will eventually come. The B.C. NDP on the one side presides over militarized raids against the Wet’suwet’en and justifies this by hiding behind jurisdictional issues and the court injunction. The Ontario and Alberta NDP have passed resolutions and issued statements in support of the Wet’suwet’en struggle. The federal party comes up the middle, between these two positions, trying to straddle the interests of Coastal GasLink and the Wet’suwet’en.
“The three positions represented by the B.C. NDP, the federal NDP leadership, and the Alberta and Ontario provincial parties cannot be maintained indefinitely. The federal party and other provincial parties cannot simply stand by while their counterparts in B.C. attack the Wet’suwet’en. At a certain point the NDP as a whole will have to determine their position on these questions and will have to decide whose side they are on: the side of the capitalists and their state or the side of Indigenous peoples.”
What will happen if the B.C. NDP uses back-to-work legislation against the public-sector unions? Such a thing should not be ruled out either. During the stagflation crisis of the 1970s, not so dissimilar to the developing inflation crisis today, the B.C. NDP legislated workers back to work. In 1975, some 50,000 workers were on strike across various industries. As explained in a Jacobin article, to overcome the crisis and please his big business masters, “Dave Barrett’s BC NDP government tabled the most sweeping back-to-work legislation in Canadian history. Shocking both organized labor and business, it ordered fifty thousand union members back to work.”
On paper, the NDP is opposed to back-to-work legislation. Federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh opposed back-to-work legislation against Canada Post workers, as well as longshoremen at the Port of Montreal. When there were calls for back-to-work legislation to be used against Canadian Pacific workers, an NDP statement said that “As always, New Democrats strongly oppose back-to-work legislation because it violates workers’ rights to fight for better working conditions that they deserve.”
What will Singh say if the B.C. NDP legislates public-sector workers back to work in B.C.? Not only as the federal NDP leader, but as a sitting MP from British Columbia, he should have something to say. If it were the B.C. Liberals in power, he would definitely oppose such legislation. But would he denounce such legislation if implemented by the NDP? Or will he support the workers? Or, as usual, will he call for “dialogue”? What dialogue is possible when the legislative power of the state is being used to take away the right to strike?
During the Wet’suwet’en raids in 2019, Singh called for calm and to respect “the rule of law”, despite the fact that the “rule of law” meant supporting the building of the Coastal Gaslink pipeline in unceded Wet’suwet’en territory. It also meant supporting the raids, as this was the “rule of law” in action as part of the court injunctions supporting the oil and gas corporation. If workers are legislated back to work in B.C. by the NDP, will Singh also support the “rule of law”, which means support for taking away the right to strike?
Singh has steadfastly refused to criticize the B.C. NDP for anything. He avoided critiques of Horgan during the Wet’suwet’en raids, instead focussing his ire on Trudeau and the federal government. Trudeau and the Liberals should of course be criticized, but Horgan cannot be left off the hook for the role his government has played in attacks on Indigenous rights.
Even recently, the federal NDP issued a statement entitled “10,000 lives lost in a single province – but the Liberals still refuse to fight the drug crisis.” The statement outlined the inaction of the federal Liberals in the face of the opioid crisis. The letter says “Instead of acting, the Liberals sat by and watched for seven years while people died – it’s appalling.” This is of course true, and needs to be said. However, what is not mentioned in the statement is that these 10,000 deaths occurred since 2016 and solely in British Columbia, a province where the NDP has been in power since 2017! The scale of the opioid crisis has only gotten worse under the provincial NDP, who’d rather fight against climate activists and Indigenous rights than stop preventable opioid deaths.
If the B.C. NDP uses legislation to force public-sector workers back to work, the fault lines already visible in the NDP could finally slip, causing an earthquake in the party. It’s not only a question of what the federal party will say and do in such an event, but what will the other provincial parties do and say? While it is still early days, and back-to-work legislation has not been proposed or tabled in the BCGEU strike, there is a possibility of this happening with serious consequences for the NDP in B.C. and nationally.
B.C. NDP leadership race
Earlier this summer, Premier John Horgan announced his intention to step down later this fall. There is now a leadership race taking place in the B.C. NDP in the middle of the BCGEU strike and continuing negotiations with the public sector unions.
David Eby, Attorney General and Minister of Housing in the B.C. NDP government, is generally seen as the natural successor to Horgan, and clearly the establishment candidate in the leadership race. As a member of the cabinet that approved the wage proposals to the BCGEU, he is also opposed to the BCGEU’s COLA proposal.
As Minister of Housing he has presided over B.C. becoming the eviction capital of Canada, with one of the worst rental markets in the country and one of the most expensive in the world. A recent survey shows British Columbians have a pretty bleak picture on the government’s ability to deal with the homelessness crisis. Of the 114,000 affordable homes the NDP promised to build in 2017, only around 11,000 have been completed.
Regardless of his miserable track record it’s clear the B.C. NDP wants nothing more than to coronate him as the next premier and get on with bringing the public-sector workers to heel. This arrogance can be best summed up by David Eby himself when he said he was frustrated with even needing to have an election to make him premier.
He is frustrated because for a time he was the only candidate. As the sole candidate, he would have been acclaimed as NDP leader and premier shortly after Oct. 4, the deadline for entering the leadership race.
Anjali Appadurai has spoiled Eby’s coronation plans. She has a climate activist background with the Sierra Club B.C., and was just 423 votes shy of winning the federal Vancouver Granville seat for the NDP in the last federal election.
While the specifics of her platform and program are lacking, she is generally critical of the B.C. NDP and its leadership. As was reported in the Daily Hive Vancouver, “Just a few years ago, Anjali Appadurai looked at the BC NDP and saw a party filled with activists and climate champions who were on the verge of taking power and making the kind of sweeping reforms they’d been promising for more than a decade. Now, five years into the NDP as government, she sees something different: An ageing, out-of-touch, listless group of New Democrats who have made so many compromises, watered down so many promises, and are so focused on staying in power that they are barely distinguishable from the political rivals they were once desperate to topple.”
She has been critical of Eby and his role in the party leadership, saying “ten years ago, he was the insurgent, the activist. But what David Eby represents right now is the party establishment. It is the party status quo.”
She has been critical of the B.C. NDP’s time in government, saying the government’s priorities are “upside down” and that “our elected officials have no plan. And that became terrifyingly clear last year. Here in B.C., we were hit with one climate disaster after another. An entire community incinerated. Farms under water. Hundreds of people killed in a heat wave. And yet our government wants to push ahead with the status quo. And it’s not just climate. It’s health care, it’s housing, it’s the sheer number of our friends and family who died in the past two years. The system is unravelling. We all feel it. And our government’s priorities are completely backward.”
An article in The Georgia Straight explained that “She’s made it crystal clear that she is against LNG, fracking, pipelines and the entire oil & gas industry, not to mention Site C. Ditto for the NDP’s limited measures to stop old-growth logging. And she’s certainly no fan of large-scale mining, particularly coal mining in the Elk River valley, as her work with Sierra Club of B.C. has suggested.”
These are all criticisms of B.C. NDP decisions and exposes the hypocrisy of various cabinet ministers. She has been critical of the political about-face of many prominent B.C. NDP members. George Heyman was previously an executive director of the Sierra Club BC. Before becoming Environment Minister he was opposed to the development of the LNG industry in the province. He has since become a champion of Premier John Horgan’s plans to pursue the development of the LNG industry. Lana Popham, now the Agriculture Minister, was publicly opposed to the Site C dam but she has reversed that opinion now that the NDP has decided to continue building it. Michelle Mungall was publicly opposed to fracking and concessions to the oil and gas industry. But when she became the Energy Minister she supported the continued payment of public subsidies for fracking and gas development in B.C. The NDP in power in British Columbia has presided over the arrests of thousands of activists protesting old-growth logging in Fairy Creek. The list goes on and on.
Appadurai also came out in support of the struggle of the Wet’suwet’en to protect their unceded lands. “Last month, I travelled up to Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan territory in Northern B.C. I witnessed this government trying to force a pipeline through sovereign Indigenous lands, drilling under one of the last rivers that you can drink out of. All, so that foreign oil and gas companies can make more money. People’s lives are crumbling and it is these big corporations that have never in Canadian history been more profitable. And that is a choice that our decision-makers have made.”
Interestingly, she also recently said that “They tell us that sweeping and transformative changes aren’t possible. They tell us that the only thing we can do is tinker around the edges and make incremental change. But I don’t believe them. And that’s why I am running to be the leader of the B.C. NDP.”
Appadurai also supports the striking BCGEU workers, saying that “Our province benefits from a strong public sector that provides workers with safe workplaces, secure jobs, and good wages to help make ends meet. My solidarity is with BC’s public service workers. I’ll see you on the picket line.”
As it stands, Eby remains the favourite to win the leadership election. He has the support of the party establishment, including the public support of 48 of the 57 NDP MLAs in the legislature. But there is still a race to run and the leadership winner won’t be announced until Dec. 3. A lot can happen between now and then, and how the public sector negotiations and strikes develop could play an important role in the NDP leadership race.
Interestingly, Appadurai was able to raise the $40,000 entry fee for the leadership race in one night from among around 100 supporters. This indicates a certain level of enthusiasm for her campaign. However, her success in the leadership bid will ultimately depend on whether she can get enough supporters to join the party before the Sept. 4 cut-off for new NDP members to be eligible to vote in the leadership election.
An important factor in all this is the B.C. NDP’s hemorrhaging of members. In all likelihood, those who have been ripping up party cards and leaving the NDP in disgust have not been from the right reformist wing. Most of the people who have left the party will be from the left wing, angered about Fairy Creek and attacks on the Wet’suwet’en, for example. The right wing of the B.C. NDP will be largely content with the Horgan government. Many of the remaining 11,000 in the party will likely vote for Eby, seeing as they haven’t already left the party in disgust.
However, 11,000 members is not a lot. And of course, of these 11,000 only a fraction will be active members. If Appadurai continues to run a bold campaign, she could sway some of those who haven’t left, and she could convince enough people to join the party to support her campaign to at least give Eby a run for his money. Some have even suggested that BCGEU and workers from other public-sector unions could join the NDP before the cut-off date to sway the leadership vote. As yet, there seems to be no indication that this is happening, but depending on how the bargaining and strikes unfold, her campaign could become a lightning rod for the anger and frustration of workers in B.C., which would transform the leadership race.
The NDP and class struggle
In any event, there is the potential for significant shifts and changes in the NDP in B.C. and across the country. The NDP has frankly been circling the drain in the recent period, especially since the federal party entered the confidence-and-supply agreement with the Trudeau Liberals.
Appadurai is in fact bucking the trend in the NDP. As the crisis of capitalism continues to deepen, as the anger and disgust at the establishment responsible for the crisis continues to grow, the NDP, rather than becoming increasingly critical, has in fact grown closer to the establishment, closer to everything that people are angry about.
The right wing, for example the Pierre Poilievres and Danielle Smiths of the world, are the only ones talking about real issues affecting youth and workers—low wages, rising inflation, the increasingly impossible costs of housing, the greed of the billionaires and the fat cats. Of course, everything the right wing says is false and designed to cover up the fact that these issues are all natural developments of the capitalist system. The right wing will never admit that the real problem is not this or that government policy (which do play a role), but the capitalist system itself. The growing anger in society is fueled by inherently anti-capitalist sentiments. But the NDP is not at all seen as a voice of discontent, and this anger is not being channeled its way. Instead, this discontent is being channeled to the right wing. Rather than becoming a lightning rod for the growing class anger in society, the NDP is increasingly seen as the defenders of the establishment and the status quo—the very things the working class is becoming fed up with.
The BCGEU strike and other public sector negotiations could end up playing a significant role in the class struggle in British Columbia and across Canada. Depending on how events play out, the strike could also be an important factor in future developments in the NDP federally and in the provinces.
Of course, we do not have a crystal ball and do not know what is going to happen. However, a victory for the BCGEU workers would set an important precedent for other workers in B.C. and throughout the country. Winning COLA agreements through strike action would buck the trend in other unions and strikes in the recent period. It would demonstrate to workers that it is possible to fight back and win. It would give the working class around the country the confidence to go on the offensive in the fight for decent wages and working conditions by showing that militant action and determination wins strikes and other important gains that workers need at a time of deep crisis in the capitalist system. A confident working class and the return of militant labour traditions are precisely what are needed and would mark a new stage in the class struggle.
Say no to wage cuts!
Strike against inflation!
Fight for COLA!
Victory to the BCGEU!
At the time of writing, the BCGEU announced that strike action was coming to an end and that it was returning to the bargaining table. The BCGEU’s media statement said the following:
Following a return to the bargaining table, the BCGEU’s Public Service Bargaining Committee has stood down job action at BC Public Service worksites as a sign of good faith.
The committee returned to the bargaining table with the BC Public Service Agency (PSA) last Thursday and has made significant progress. The two sides will continue to meet throughout the week, hoping to finalize a tentative agreement.
The union’s overtime ban has ended – effective immediately – and preparations are underway to stand down picket lines at BC Liquor Distribution Branch locations.
The two parties’ media and member communications blackout will continue.
Given the blackout on communications, there is as yet no information on what progress has been made in bargaining, or what the tentative agreement entails.
If the government has agreed to the BCGEU’s demands for a COLA agreement, this would be a significant victory for the BCGEU workers. It would also be an important victory for workers in the other public-sector unions still at the bargaining table, as it would set a precedent for ongoing negotiations between the government and other public-sector workers. A COLA agreement for all public-sector workers would be a fantastic victory, and should be the first step towards fighting for COLA for all workers across the country, unionized or not.
However, if the BCGEU bargaining team has dropped the demand for COLA, or otherwise accepted concessions on wage demands, this would represent a serious betrayal on the part of the union leadership and the B.C. NDP. In that event, this too would likewise set an important precedent for ongoing bargaining with other unions.
If the BCGEU strike ends with the workers not receiving COLA, the other public-sector unions will need to begin organizing for strike and solidarity action to continue to fight for COLA and to protect the wages and living standards of the workers. A defeat for the BCGEU would be a serious setback for the working class of British Columbia. An important battle would have been lost. However, the war is far from over.
Workers across the country have been repeatedly sold down the river by their union leaderships, who have caved on wage demands and left their members with effective wage cuts while inflation remains high. A mood of anger continues to grow amongst the workers whose attempts to protect wages and living standards are constantly frustrated. This pressure from the working class currently has no outlet. However, the workers will continue to seek solutions to these problems, and union leaderships who fail to protect wages and living standards will come under increasing pressure and eventually be replaced by leaderships who will commit to fighting for COLA and other gains. The bad deals, wage cuts, and betrayals of the workers by the union leaders sets the stage for significant shifts to the left in the unions in the future.
Any potential betrayal by the BCGEU leadership and B.C. NDP should not be discouraging, but rather reinforce our resolve to organize and to fight for decent wages, to protect standards of living, and against the capitalist system.