There is something almost magical about the power of spontaneous worker solidarity. Across the country, the images of steel workers and bus drivers and municipal workers joining the British Columbia hospital workers on the picket lines struck a chord in the very base of our collective unconsciousness.
It’s enough to make your heart skip a beat. It doesn’t happen often. When it does, foundations begin to tremble. This is worth remembering.
May, 2004, was a brutal month for public-sector workers. In Newfoundland and Labrador, the government legislated an end to a 27-day strike jointly conducted by 20,000 members of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Public Employees (NAPE) and the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE).
The government imposed a four-year contract providing for a wage freeze in the first two years and reductions in sick leave, and permitting the government to violate an election pledge by laying off 4,000 workers.
On the other coast, without even going through the motions of bargaining to resolve a legal strike by 43,000 members of the Hospital Employees Union (HEU), the hateful government of Gordon Campbell introduced legislation imposing a two-year contract including a 15-per-cent wage rollback, a 1.5-hour increase in the work week and no job security.
The response of HEU members and workers in other sectors was swift and strong. “The labour movement cannot and will not stand idly by and watch the provincial government treat our healthcare workers in this heavy-handed and unjust manner,” stated the Vancouver and District Labour Council.
And labour did not stand by. In every city in the province, workers took action to support the HEU. Dozens of CUPE workplaces shut down in solidarity, joined in various locations by transit workers, wood workers, hydro workers, steel workers and many others.
Faced with the prospect of coordinated support strike action being organized through the B.C. Federation of Labour, the government resumed bargaining. On Sunday, May 2, prior to a planned massive show of union strength, it agreed to place a cap on contracting out of jobs and remove the retroactive aspect of the wage cut.
It needs to be remembered that the strike was called to get better job-security provisions. It achieved that, but this is a success only in a context of an overall disaster.
For the union leadership, the results were bittersweet. Jim Sinclair, president of the B.C. Federation of Labour, said, “All of us know it is not good enough, we’re not celebrating tonight.”
Chris Allnutt, HEU secretary-business manager, stated, “We were faced with a law and a government that was determined to privatize health care and we have limited that. And, in that, it is a victory for working people and patients in this province.”
For many HEU activists, the agreement to end the strike in exchange for improved job security was not enough of a victory. Many activists thought HEU and the B.C. Federation of Labour missed an opportunity to bring the entire unionized community of British Columbia together in a struggle in which there was a genuine chance of winning. Others were angry that decisions had been taken without consultation and input from the membership.
One of the major problems of back-to-work legislation is that things move fast, and the leadership has to take decisions without recourse to the usual means of membership consultation. With fines and lawsuits worth hundreds of thousands of dollars piling up daily, it was not practical to continue a strike for several days to take a membership vote.
The leadership of the HEU and the B.C. Federation of Labour are tough and experienced leaders. They made the call based on their reading of the situation. But this does not deny the legitimate anger and frustration of members over the denial of their most basic rights.
The labour movement, and especially public-sector unions across Canada, will have to reflect on the implications of the battles in Newfoundland and British Columbia. We have taken some very serious losses in terms of wages and working conditions. Our fundamental rights have been denied once again. Despite these setbacks, however, there are also positive lessons to draw upon.
In Newfoundland, the unity between NAPE and CUPE during a very difficult struggle was unprecedented. Their strike was strong and the members never wavered. And the solidarity in B.C. was awesome.
We saw the power and enthusiasm that is generated when we struggle on a class basis, instead of in isolated bargaining units. This was the first time ever that all the unions, public- and private-sector, committed themselves to go on an illegal strike to support a public-sector illegal strike. The schedule was set to start Monday. That is what we can build from.
The labour movement needs to develop a strategy that will enable us to successfully confront the increasingly right-wing governments we face. In my next column, I will explore what this strategy could look like.
This article appeared in the May/June 2004 issue of Canadian Dimension .