After eight months without a contract, three weeks of strike action, government legislation, and illegal job action, the UBC strike is finally at an end. This was a strike that pitted some of the poorest student workers against an employer working hand-in-glove with the government. The strike was widely followed by workers in British Columbia and Canada, and had a radicalizing effect on the students involved. This article analyzes the lessons coming out of this movement.

It has become popular in the BC labour movement to praise the UBC teaching assistants (TAs) for their courage and energy. TAs banged drums, sang songs, and were unapologetic in the media. However, this praise is frequently followed by a comment on the inherent radicalism of youth and how therefore the experience is not translatable to other workers. It is the contention of this article that not only is the experience translatable, but organizing TAs is a greater challenge than organizing older workers with more union traditions. The question is then posed, “What made the difference at UBC and how can this aid the fightback against the Liberal government?”

The trade union membership is getting old. In the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), the average member is 49 years of age. At union conventions and meetings delegates complain about the lack of youth involvement (or involvement, period), and try to understand how to reverse this trend.

In part it is due to the shift in the capitalist economy away from manufacturing and towards services. Young workers typically end up in non-union employment, at or near the minimum wage, with barely enough money to live on – let alone to raise a family. If youth are lucky enough to get a union job, they are traditionally ghettoized in casual or auxiliary employment with few if any benefits or job security.

When union officials use the “two-car contentment syndrome” to explain why there is little labour activity, it is not surprising that young workers near the poverty line do not see themselves represented in their rhetoric. Union organizers also cite the high turnover rate as a barrier to youth involvement.

However, workers at UBC do not come from a special place outside of the influence of the rest of society. Each year approximately 30% of the membership of CUPE 2278 turns over. These new members frequently have never been in a union, most are not culturally working class, and many are hostile to trade unionism. It is also wrong to think of these workers as coming straight off the barricades of the WTO in Seattle, or Québec City. It is a cliché at UBC to talk of student apathy – politically TAs are not significantly to the left of any other UBC student.

How CUPE 2278 organized

In September 2000, at the start of the new academic year, the TA union faced the task of educating a membership of 1800 with only three people. Despite having made some gains in bargaining the year before (by riding the coat-tails of striking CUPE 116 maintenance workers and CUPE 2950 clerical staff), all the lead activists had gone leaving only the president and two staff members. Despite that (or perhaps because of it), the union resolved to re-organize and move away from the business union model of grievances and bureaucracy.

Over the following two years the key to involvement was workplace union orientations- which were presented in the same way one would present an organizing drive, and small campaigns (e.g. against unpaid overtime). Collecting the email addresses of the members also became increasingly important, since the basics of trade unionism were explained, and workers were mobilized through a list serve.

Finally, as the contract neared expiration, a bargaining platform was developed with a simple slogan, “A tuition increase = a wage cut”. Paying tuition is a condition of employment for teaching assistants at UBC and most TAs are graduate students. After the right-wing Liberal government was elected in 2001, tuition fees were deregulated after six years of tuition freeze.

Union supporters on the UBC board of governors were also replaced with corporate appointees of the Liberals such as the heads of BC Gas and the Hang Seng Bank of Canada. Martha Piper, UBC’s president, also approved herself a 68% wage hike to $350,000 – one hundred thousand dollars more than the Prime Minister.

UBC’s governing “dictatorship” immediately announced tuition increases of approximately 30% per year, or about $1,500 over three years. This amounted to an effective 16% wage cut for teaching assistants. TAs and the campus population were asked, “is this fair?” in the campus media, on bus advertisements, and most importantly in membership meetings. The answer was a resounding no, leading to an 87% strike vote over the issue of tuition waivers. As if by magic the employer moved away from its position of a government imposed wage freeze, and offered 7% over three years. The members saw how being prepared to strike yielded results.

The strike

Marxists have long advocated democratic workers’ control. Formalists believe that democracy and leadership are in opposition – which only shows that they fear the workers. In the TA Union throughout the strike all of the major decisions were brought before the membership at meetings. The catch-phrase was “this room decides”. However the leadership was never afraid to lead, knowing that an informed membership which had the opportunity to openly debate the direction of the strike would result in the generalization of the movement. TAs saw it as “their” struggle and added their creativity and energy to the cause.

Weekly membership meetings attracted between 200-400 people while pickets were up. Daily strike debrief/planning meetings, open to all, also helped to solidify a group of activists. At one such membership meeting February 12 was set as the strike deadline and it was widely advertised to the campus population (see TV report).

Once the union had made the decision to completely withdraw services, the worry was whether the TAs who had voted no or had abstained would scab the picket line. Despite the lack of any mechanism of discipline beyond a guilt trip, 98% of TAs adhered to the strike. The workers were united and they had the support of the campus community.

The focus of the battle then moved to the media (hear radio debate). UBC spent over $100,000 in advertising in the right-wing press to slander its own workers. Their aim was also to remove the anti contracting-out language possessed by CUPE 116. Martha Piper met with the Vancouver Sun editorial board, which led to an editorial calling the author of the article you are reading “intransigent”. They had also been in collusion with the Government, several months before the strike, to implement back-to-work legislation. Without the combined support of the capitalist Press and the capitalist State the workers would have been victorious within a week; there was no way the administration could have resisted a strike through final exams.

However, the strike was far too successful to be ignored. The government could not let such a militant strike end in victory for fear that other workers would follow the same example. The labour minister Graham Bruce introduced back-to-work legislation, instituting a 20-day “cooling off period” where any strike would be illegal. This was unheard of in Canadian labour history. Similar legislation has been used against high-school teachers and nurses after long strikes – but to remove the right to strike from a relatively unimportant group such as TAs shows what lengths the bosses are willing to go to attack workers.

As soon as the legislation came down the workers reacted angrily blocking the main entrance to the university (March 12 News). An emergency meeting that evening voted to defy the legislation and the following morning every entrance to the university was blockaded. (March 13 News) This was not supposed to happen!

The legislation had served to provoke the workers, with all three CUPE locals united on the picket line. The following day the blockades remained, the protest was getting larger and not smaller. The employer had still not got an enforcement order to charge the workers. One thug decided to ram the pickets with his car, and private non-union construction workers started fights – but this only hardened the determination amongst the illegal strikers and cars were placed in front of the pickets for safety (March 14 News). Approximately 5,000 workers and students took part in these protests and in the illegal strike action against the university administration and against the government.

Binding arbitration or general strike?

The situation was clearly getting out of control. There was talk of sympathy strikes and the activation of CUPE BC’s “Solidarity Vote”. In response to previous attacks by the government CUPE BC had passed a solidarity vote pledging that CUPE workers would take sympathy action in opposition to government legislation against CUPE members. This sympathy action could lead up to a general public sector strike if necessary.

The employer got its enforcement order against illegal strikes and blockades. CUPE BC proposed binding arbitration as a compromise to avert further illegal job action and the three UBC locals acquiesced to this strategy. The locals met with the labour minister and delivered the threat, but he would not agree to arbitration.

The following week the unions went back into mediation, but the employer did not move an inch – they were clearly sitting on their hands waiting for the government to legislate the entire contract. In frustration over the absence of movement CUPE 2278 planned to put before the members a blatantly illegal withdrawal of services. This would put the union and its officers in contempt of court and open to fines and possible imprisonment. TAs understood that once the government had legislated a contract then getting its repeal would be near impossible – there had to be action before this happened.

However, before this strategy was enacted the government and the employer blinked! They accepted binding arbitration. It may seem odd, but this was seen as a huge victory. UBC workers were the first to make the Liberal government meet with them and accept their demands. Militancy worked.

Unfortunately the three weeks of waiting for the arbitrator’s ruling resulted in a disappointing outcome. Teaching assistants received 11.5% increases in wages over three years but nothing on tuition, which was the main issue. This left the union 4.5% behind (since the employer clawed back 16% in tuition increases). Still this was 11.5% the workers would not have won had they not stuck.

The other unions essentially received a wage freeze (with bonuses resulting from “efficiency” savings). Worst of all CUPE 116 lost significant portions of their anti-contracting out language – leaving practically all new construction to the non-union thugs who started fights on the picket line. This contracting out threatens the very existence of CUPE 116 in the years to come.

The outcome made the workers angry, but not disheartened. Despite the attacks of a rich and powerful employer, and the removal of their democratic right to strike, the workers knew they had never been defeated.

CUPE 2278 has since formed a “flying squad” to help out other workers on strike and to stay picket-fit for the next round of negotiations in 2005. The advice for the rest of the labour movement is “Do not accept binding arbitration – strike, and strike hard”. What teaching assistants had won above anything else was a real Union, able to act collectively to fight for social justice and against the bosses’ government that attacked them.

So what was the difference at UBC? Teaching assistants were not traditional union activists, there had been no strong tradition of militant action there, and many of them were training for key positions as skilled professionals. The difference was simply one of leadership.

The working class already runs society, the state, and everything in it. Not a wheel turns, not a light shines, without our say-so. However we are lulled into believing there is nothing that can be done to turn the tide against attacks from employers and their state. But this is not true. 90% of the battle exists within our own organizations to ensure they have a militant and democratic leadership. When that is true, nothing will stop us.

Alex Grant is the former president of CUPE local 2278, the teaching assistants’ union at the University of British Columbia

Appendix: Message from a striking TA

Hi All,

This is probably an abuse of our email list, but I really want to say this.

On the second day of our protest (protest, not picket), I stood in front of an absolutely humungous mac truck, driven by an equally humungous man who was screaming and swearing and saying that he was going to bulldoze me and the van behind me out of the way with his front grille. I was scared out of my wits, but I stood my ground. I did not move because I was fighting for all of you, and the reason why I was fighting for you is because I knew that all of you were fighting for me. That’s what “union” means: We stand together. I feel honoured, well beyond my ability to put it into words, to have stood beside you.

I’ve spent an entire semester feeling pissed off and stressed out and very very tired and cold, but I wouldn’t trade this experience, because I’ve learned so much about myself, about what I believe in, and about what it takes to make the world into the place it should be – and what I have to do to make it that way.

We’ve got a contract, and it’s arguably a slap in the face, but I’m still standing, and more importantly, I’m still standing my ground. And I will for the rest of my life – you guys taught me how to do that. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Standing on the front lines beside all of you has proven to be the most valuable education I’ve received here at UBC.

In solidarity, and with great affection,

Jennifer De Benedictis