Illegal strikes are almost always caused by management provocations – firing union activists, health and safety violations, introducing non-union workers at a job site, or the introduction of repressive labour legislation.Illegal job actions mostly don’t end up in clear victories for the unions. Dismissals, arrests, or court injunctions often enter into the equation, adding to the issues that must be resolved and putting the unions further onto the defensive.
Usually workers end up returning to work with their heads held high, if with little to show in terms of immediate gains. But the impact of a strike cannot be measured only by the immediate terms of the settlement. More important is the impact of the struggle upon the union concerned and the broader labour movement. By that measure, almost every major illegal strike conducted in Canada during the past 30 years has been a success. The recent British Columbia teachers’ strike will also prove to be an important step forward for labour.
In many ways the strike helped strengthen the teachers’ union and the entire labour movement as they prepare for future battles with the government. The strike provided the very capable leadership of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation with the opportunity to focus the attention of the public on problems in the education system caused by government cutbacks and under-funding. The efforts of the government to turn the issue into one of the “rule of law” failed, as the teachers successfully demonstrated the link between their collective bargaining rights, the quality of education and the interests of the public.
The internal union processes were also democratic and transparent. The members voted to take strike action in the full knowledge that it was illegal. They also voted to return to work knowing that their central demands for wage increases and guaranteed reductions of class size had not been resolved.
The decision to return to work could not have come easily for many of the teachers. After two weeks of strike, the union remained united and strong on the picket lines. The teachers had a lot of public support and were clearly beating the government in the public debate on education issues. The labour movement had provided unprecedented support in the form of two regional general strikes, in addition to several actions initiated by CUPE.
Despite these strengths the union leadership also faced considerable difficulties as it considered continuing the strike into its third week. There was no indication that Premier Gordon Campbell was on the brink of capitulation. The teachers also faced ever-increasing court fines and the possibility of further court actions. No one knows what the public reaction would have been had the union rejected the recommendations of mediator Vince Ready. After weighing all considerations, the leadership recommended acceptance and the membership supported the decision by a vote of 77 per cent.
The British Columbia Federation of Labour also emerged from the strike stronger and more relevant. The Federation called two regional general strikes to support the teachers. Although participation of affiliates was not unanimous, the actions effectively shut down Victoria on October 17, and several communities in the Kootenays on the 19th. In situations that involve job actions, central labour bodies like federations of labour depend upon the support of affiliated unions to organize the membership. It is not clear if the affiliated unions would have endorsed more regional strikes, had the teachers’ strike continued into its third week. However, the success of the actions in Victoria and the Kootenays bodes well for future struggles against the Campbell government.
This article appeared in the January/February 2006 issue of Canadian Dimension (Politics and Religion).