From November issue of Socialist Action
BC labour and teacher brass abandon
fight against anti-union regime
by Roger Annis (Vancouver, October 23)
Thirty-eight thousand public school teachers in British Columbia have voted by seventy seven percent to end a sixteen-day strike that brought the province to the brink of a general strike.
The teachers, members of the BC Teachers' Federation, walked off the job on October 6. Bargaining for a new collective agreement was going nowhere. They were demanding a 15 percent pay raise over three years and the right to negotiate their conditions of work. They want the provincial government to restore education funding to 2002 levels, and in particular, they want a voice in decisions over rising class sizes.
From the get-go, the Liberal Party government of Premier Gordon Campbell told teachers that they would receive zero percent salary increases over the next two years and cutbacks to education spending would continue unabated. It passed a special law, Bill 12, that declared the strike “illegal”.
On October 10, a judge of the provincial court declared the union to be in violation of Bill 12. Three days later, she issued a Draconian ruling reminiscent of the British government’s moves to cripple the National Union of Mineworkers during the historic coal miners’ strike of 1984/85. The judge froze the financial assets of the union and forbade it from paying strike pay or receiving strike support money from other unions. Several days after that, she fined the union $500,000.
The vote was held under the threat of further moves by the court, including outright seizure of the union’s financial assets and prosecution of its leaders for criminal contempt of court.
The strike generated vast support from students, parents, and other union members. Public opinion polls showed that support for the strike was rising the longer teachers held out. Twenty five thousand school support workers, most of whom are members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), respected picket lines throughout the strike. Students held rallies in support of the strike, and parents and other union members joined picket lines and brought food and other gestures of support with them.
By the second week of the strike, other unions in the province began to weigh into the battle with rotating regional strikes and protest rallies coordinated by the BC Federation of Labor. Workers at most public services across Vancouver Island went on strike on Monday, October 17 and held a rally of twenty thousand in front of the provincial legislature in Victoria. Smaller walkouts and rallies took place that week in Prince George, the Kootenay region (southeast British Columbia), and the south-central region of the province (Kelowna/Kamloops). Some industrial unions joined the walkout in Kootenay.
Public sector workers in Vancouver were poised to walk off the job in a vast display of solidarity on Friday, October 21. But the day before, a government-appointed mediator hastily announced a proposal to end the strike. The government would agree to discuss the issue of class sizes with teachers at some time in 2006 but the wage freeze would stay in place.
Leaders of the BC Federation of Labor immediately announced their support to the proposal and urged teachers to accept it. Solidarity actions planned for Vancouver were called off.
A day of solidarity went ahead nonetheless in the Vancouver region, but under the auspices of CUPE. Municipal governments, universities and colleges, and other government services were closed that day, and two rallies drew 10,000 workers. The leaders of other unions and the BC Fed were nowhere to be seen.
An intense discussion and debate surrounded the vote by teachers. Leading up to mass meetings of the union, many teachers voiced opposition to the agreement because of the long track record of the Liberal government in breaking promises. They cited the record of the government in tearing up the existing collective agreements of most unions in the public sector following its first election in 2001. Radical cuts to social spending followed. The government’s actions were condemned by, among others, the International Labor Organization, but none of this altered its course.
The leadership of the teachers union argued that the unity of teachers and the widespread support they had received will guarantee that the government will have to seriously address its concerns over class sizes and other consequences of cuts to education spending.
The teachers' strike brought to a head a long-simmering anger by working people at deep cuts to education, health care and other social services that were initiated by governments of the labor-based New Democratic Party in the 1990’s, and then deepened by the Liberals after 2001. Since 1990, the average annual salary increase for teachers has been 0.65 percent. Since 2001, the Liberal government has closed 120 public schools. It has cut several thousand teaching positions and reduced many special education services as well as library and physical education programs. Average class sizes have sharply risen.
Two other labor battles in western Canada run parallel to the teachers' strike. Fourteen thousand telecommunication workers at Telus Corporation in Alberta and British Columbia have been on strike since July. In Brooks, Alberta, 2,400 meat packing workers, members of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, went on strike October 12 against Tyson Foods and have waged a militant picket line battle to resist efforts by the company to continue production with scab labor.
Telus workers are voting on a proposed settlement that would give the corporation most of the changes it seeks. The company wants to cut thousands of jobs by contracting out; by reducing holiday, sick time and other benefits to workers; and by significantly weakening the seniority, grievance and other measures by which the union can defend workers. Leaders of the Telecommunications Workers Union are urging a yes vote to the deal.