Last issue I wrote a column about the BC Hospital Workers’ strike and the efforts of the B.C. Federation of Labour (BC Fed) to organize support for the Hospital Employees Union (HEU). I expressed the belief that it was the solidarity of HEU members and the prospect of coordinated support strike action being organized by the B.C. Federation of Labour that forced the government to resume bargaining with the HEU and agree to the union’s demand to significantly limit contracting out of work. Some people whom I respect were angry that I was not critical of the leadership. I wasn’t and I am still not.
I think anyone can understand the frustration and disappointment felt by many activists in the BC labour movement over the concessions that were part of the HEU agreement. But the hospital workers’ union was confronted with the reality of already having witnessed thousands of their members laid off when their jobs were contracted out to large multinational corporations. The lucky ones were re-employed at half the wages, few benefits and twice their previous workload. The unlucky are still unemployed. Lives and families have been shattered. Don’t ask me to second-guess the strategy of a proven union leadership faced with these options during an illegal strike. You have to be there. I wasn’t. I am impressed that the BC Fed was able to gain a commitment on the part of other unions to take action in support of the HEU. I think we can build from this. And frankly I find it troubling that many people on the Left seem more interested in criticizing the BC Fed leadership than discussing what type of strategy would enable the labour movement to successfully resist the right-wing onslaught that we are experiencing. We need to do this.
The labour movement is not good at evaluating our struggles and learning from them. In the past the Canadian Labour movement has engaged in several major political struggles that have involved mass work stoppages. The Québec Common Front bargaining of the 1970s, the 1976 National General strike, BC Operation Solidarity, and the Ontario Days of Action are all examples of planned mass work stoppages. Some of these struggles also involved community allies in the planning and execution of the protests. There are also dozens of examples of major strikes that could have become the focus of broader political struggles. But the labour movement has not evaluated the strengths and weaknesses of these struggles. We have not evaluated the effectiveness of this type of mobilization in changing government or employer practices or policies. Nor have we seriously analyzed the degree to which mass work stoppages have been effective in building unity within the labour movement and between labour and its political allies.
The labour movement, and especially the public sector unions, has to do some very serious thinking about how it will respond to major attacks on public services and the rights and wages of public sector workers. We need to draw from the experiences of the workers who have been engaged in these struggles. We need input from community allies. We need to evaluate our past attempts to share decision-making between unions and community organizations. The strengths and weaknesses of linking broader struggles to key collective bargaining struggles should also be examined.
We need to get way beyond the type of snap judgments and simplistic denunciations of the leadership that are too often passed off as analysis. Sadly many left critiques of the struggles of the labour movement are not taken seriously either by the leadership or by most activists. In part this is due to a lack of respect for academic “outsiders” and in part it reflects the culture of a movement in which proven leadership ability is given much more respect than correct analysis.
Hopefully Canadian Dimension can play a role in promoting a debate and discussion between labour leaders and activists about the effectiveness of the different types of mass work stoppages that labour has conducted and how the movement can organize to take on struggles in the future.
Labour and Proportional Representation
Delegates to the 2002 Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) convention voted overwhelmingly in favour of a resolution calling for the introduction of a system of proportional representation for federal elections. The 2004 federal election has demonstrated the wisdom of this decision. With almost 16% of the popular vote the NDP received 6% of the parliamentary seats. With 4.3% of the vote the Green Party elected no one.
The convention resolution provides the CLC with a mandate to press forward on the issue. But it will take an active membership campaign to make proportional representation a reality. If there ever was an opening to press for real democratic reform it is now.
This article appeared in the July/August 2004 issue of Canadian Dimension .