Volume 38, Number 5: September/October 2004

G Stands for General Strike

In the July/August issue of CD, the “Labour Report” column suggested that it was high time for activists and the Left in the labour movement, especially in public-sector unions, to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of significant political struggles including mass work stoppages, especially those in which we have been personally involved. The point is not to reminisce, but to participate in a debate around how to build resistance to the right-wing hammerings we continue to endure, with, frankly, no end in sight.

This makes sense to me, not just because of the successive drubbing of unions in collective bargaining or via draconian legislation. It’s also because the challenges posed to labour by the ascendancy of neoliberalism increasingly are political, featuring in the last couple of decades the fading away of the social compromises with governments and ruling economic power formerly pursued by trade unions. Many on the Left have insisted that as a result, there ought to be increased importance placed on developing labour’s own political analysis and program, and a deepening of the convergence of unions with social-justice networks, the anti-globalization movement and community allies who share with labour the massive impact of privatization, contracting out of jobs and the gutting of social benefits. The continuing difficulties between labour and its coalition partners around the process of decisionmaking offers up another subject for critical evaluation.

Most recently, the Left inside and outside the labour movement has weighed in on the role of the Hospital Employees’ Union and the B.C. Federation of Labour leadership in response to the odious Campbell government’s Bill 37. Some are sharply critical of its failure to build on the unprecedented solidarity of the labour movement and broad segments of the public by escalating work stoppages leading to a general strike. Accepting the deal with all its concessions has been portrayed as scuttling a stunning opportunity to successfully confront the brutal B.C. Liberal regime and move the B.C. working class forward politically. Harsh assessments of labour leaders’ underlying motives have circulated.

The disappointment of B.C. labour activists and the Left over this situation isn’t hard to comprehend. It’s lamentably true that labour’s leadership, in B.C. and pretty well everywhere else you can think of, hasn’t yet been able to develop the necessary strategies, along with our political allies in the community, to collectively beat back the likes of the Campbell government. However, as a socialist and a long-time elected union activist, I doubt very much that conjecture about who did what to whom and with which iniquitous intent will be anywhere near as helpful as having a good look at the lessons we can draw from this and other situations involving mass labour and coalition actions, with an eye to future struggles.

Before trotting the B.C. Fed leadership out to the working-class woodshed, I think the Left should at least recognize that these folks were clear from the beginning that the purpose of their mobilizing efforts around Bill 37 was to achieve a settlement for striking health-care workers. To this end, it’s indisputable that the Fed mobilized massive support.

I can’t help compare this effort to that of the Canadian Labour Congress in 1978, when the Canadian Union of Postal Workers defied back-to-work legislation after one day of a legal strike for a support and implied CUPW was impudently demanding a general strike (not so). In a notorious press release during the strike, the CLC characterized postal workers’ defiance as “suicidal” and stated we were pushing the labour movement toward “a course of action which takes us down the road to anarchy.”

On the one hand, in 1978, a labour leadership openly invites the government and employer to attack at will a union in a difficult struggle. On the other hand, in 2004, a labour leadership mobilizes tens of thousands of workers across every community to shut down workplaces in solidarity, as a signal to government and employer that the struggle of the union under attack is the struggle of the whole labour movement. Irrespective of the settlements in either case, it doesn’t overtax my limited analytic ability to decide which scenario is the most promising for the future.

As well, my sense of the labour movement tells me that attempts to piggy-back a general work stoppage with attached political demands onto the collective agreement struggle of a particular union may well be fraught with considerable uncertainty.

Although sometimes glossed over, the fact is that union leaders are accountable to their members, and in the first instance have to take due cognizance of the pressures on and concerns of those members. These days, workers in a union which is the victim of back-to-work legislation are likely to face the prospect of ruinous and multiplying financial penalties for their defiance. The union itself may face dismemberment of its activist cadre, including firings or removal of the right to hold union positions for prolonged periods. Even with the full support of the labour movement, workers under this kind of threat are likely to think twice before becoming sacrificial lambs for the greater good.

Simply laying criminal charges against union leaders hasn’t always put sufficient pressure on “illegal” strikers to call it quits. Our experience in 1978 was that charges against Jean-Claude Parrot and the CUPW leadership didn’t by themselves shake postal workers’ resolve. But the government announcement that those who failed to return to work by somewhere in the vicinity of yesterday could be declared to have “abandoned their positions” was a whole different kettle of alligators for activists working to shore up the picket lines. Given this reality, no one castigated the CUPW leadership for not holding a membership vote before returning to work.

What Needs to Happen for an Effective General Strike

This raises the question of what happens to a general work stoppage if the union at the centre decides, rightly or wrongly, that it has no choice but to settle. Short of having previously determined social or political objectives, carefully worked out, agreed upon and built through various mobilizations over a considerable period of time by the unions, community organizations, social-justice groups and other political allies of the labour movement (which recognize the requirement of union leaders to be responsible to their base), escalating work stoppages in this kind of situation, even with major initial popular support, have little prospect of achieving very much.

This by no means should lead anyone to the conclusion that mass work stoppages, including general strikes, cannot be effective tools for working-class resistance. In fact, there is a crying need for the labour movement to recognize the serious crisis it faces and find ways of building the capacity to wage mass struggles that focus on social, class-wide demands. There’s no easy answers here, but some large-scale mobilizations in the recent history of the labour movement, including those which did not realize their full potential, may have some important positive lessons well worth taking into account.

Québec’s Common Front, 1972

One event is the Québec Common Front struggle of 1972, arguably the most important workers’ mobilization in Canada or Québec during the past 35 years, and one which I hope others will review in more detail. While unions representing 200,000 publicsector workers engaged jointly in negotiations with the Québec government, they were able to unite around broad, cross-union demands, the most important being a $100-per-week minimum wage for the most vulnerable and low-paid public-sector workers, mostly women. The story of the Common Front’s successes include winning this demand and making other gains in a series of general work stoppages, factory occupations and even occupations of entire communities, building unity with large numbers of private- sector workers, moving previously “conservative” unions and labour leaders in a decidedly radical direction and, at its peak, neutralizing repressive police forces. It didn’t all happen overnight and there were disappointments along with the victories, but it requires our serious attention.

National Day of Protest, 1976

Another event is the 1976 National Day of Protest called by the CLC in response to federal wage controls, capitalism’s preferred method of the day to stem “stagflation.” My experience was that union activists’ mobilizing of workers’ participation through the gamut of union communications, workplace discussions and shopsteward lunch-room and general membership meetings. It gathered a lot of steam because of the sharply focused, class-wide nature of the message: Down with wage controls. Workers’ contempt for the government’s brazen pretence that price controls were a serious element of the program and recognition that workers’ wages and rollbacks of negotiated settlements were the real targets of the Anti- Inflation Board (AIB) allowed for the development of real momentum, resulting in well over a million workers walking off the job. The fact that the strike was for only one day added to its organizational success.

One big problem was that labour leaders, some of whom were lukewarm to the action from the get-go, were unable or unwilling to use this success as a foundation for follow-up mobilizations. The CLC’s then-pursuit of the unholy grail of “Tripartism” explains part of the reluctance, a matter which gave rise to important and effective criticism by Left delegates at the fractious CLC Convention of 1978.

Operation Solidarity, 1983

Things were less straightforward in the mass actions in B.C. in 1983 and the Days of Action in Ontario in the mid-nineties, both of which I was involved in. There is no space here for the probing review they deserve as part of a real evaluation. Both occurred in response to the huge and still ongoing project of the neoliberal restructuring of capitalism (I think we called it “supplyside social and economic initiatives” back in 1983), and both involved labour leaders bewildered by the failure of the system to provide resolutions to these massive attacks.

The breakdown of the Solidarity Coalition alliance between labour and its community allies, culminating in the infamous Kelowna Accord has been much documented; less attention has been paid to the less-than-solid public support and lack of enthusiastic response from private-sector unions and their members as work stoppages escalated in the General Strike That Almost Was. There’s also the crucial point that not only the labour leadership, but also the Left in the unions and the Coalition, didn’t really articulate much by way of an economic and social alternative to the politics of Bill Bennett’s restraint blitzkrieg. Nonetheless, the possibilities of mass action were revealed, and I will never forget the day, following months of work by CUPW activists, when a mass meeting of Vancouver postal workers voted decisively to join the escalating strikes as soon as it were called upon to do so.

Ontario’s Days of Action

On the surface, Ontario’s Days of Action might seem a more modest undertaking, although I can attest to the incredible organizing work carried out by union and coalition activists to convince workers in community after community that support for this resistance effort was necessary. More than that, union activists and community allies were able to engage each other respectfully to a significant degree, and came to count upon one another in a way that wasn’t realized in the earlier B.C. attempts. I’m of the opinion that the Days of Action, which reached their peak with the successful day-long shutdown of Toronto, had a significant impact in blunting the planned attacks by the Mike Harris government in its later phase.

Certainly the method of the D of A’s demise illustrates why it’s a good idea to be careful what you wish for. At the 1997 Ontario Fed Convention, left unionists, ironically enough without consulting labour’s community allies, were instrumental in the delegates’ decision to replace the Days of Action strategy with one leading to a full-fledged general strike. Whereupon, to paraphrase Hilaire Belloc’s famous poem, no more was heard/but sounds of strong trade unionists struggling with a word. And virtual silence from the leadership.

The trick, of course, is to determine what elements of these, and other, experiences can be usefully transferred to the mass working-class actions that lie ahead of us. I know future issues of CD will contain insightful interventions on this topic.

Evert Hoogers has been an activist in the Canadian Union of Postal Workers since 1972, and covered the explosive Canadian Labour Congress conventions of the late seventies for CD. He was President of the Vancouver Local from 1980 to 1986, and, since 1990, has been an elected National Union Representative in Ottawa.