Spartacist Canada No. 147
B.C. Teachers Strike Defies Liberal Government
Class Struggle Can Beat Back Capitalist Attacks
VANCOUVER—When the B.C. Teachers Federation (BCTF) threw up picket lines that shut down schools throughout the province beginning on October 7, it showed how the power of organized labour can be wielded to fight the onslaught of the capitalist ruling class. Four days earlier, the provincial Liberal government of Gordon Campbell had enacted Bill 12, union-busting legislation that imposed a wage-freeze contract on the BCTFs 38,000 members. The government declared that any strike action would be illegal. But the teachers voted by over 90 percent to defy the law and launched a hard-fought strike in defense of union rights and public education.
For two weeks, the BCTF stood tough in the face of attacks by the courts and government aimed at crippling the union. The B.C. Supreme Court froze the unions assets, banning strike pay and the use of union offices to support the strike. The Campbell regime appointed a special prosecutor to consider criminal contempt charges against the union. But BCTF members remained unbowed, and their strike spread to other sectors of the labour movement.
The 25,000 school support workers in the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) backed the teachers from day one by refusing to work in struck facilities. Spearheaded by CUPE, other unions then staged rotating one-day city and regional strikes. On October 17, walkouts crippled government services up and down Vancouver Island. Members of the Telecommunications Workers Union (TWU), already locked out by the Telus phone bosses, picketed bus barns to ensure transit was shut down. More than 20,000 demonstrators braved heavy rain to rally at the legislature in Victoria. Greetings were read from unions as far away as South Africa and Mexico, where a solidarity protest took place outside the Canadian embassy. The following days saw strikes from Prince George to the Kootenays.
Polls showed that over 60 percent of B.C. residents backed the teachers against the government, whose attacks on education, health care and other social services have provoked widespread anger. Faced with escalating strike action, the Liberal regime was forced to abandon its hard-line no negotiations stance. To cover this retreat, the government appointed mediator Vince Ready to facilitate a settlement. His report, issued on the eve of a threatened October 21 Vancouver-area walkout, called for an additional $100 million to be paid to the teachers, largely by increasing pensions and harmonizing salaries in various regions. Ready also called on the government to consider the unions demand for smaller class sizes. While this fell short of the BCTFs demands, union members voted by 77 percent to accept the union leaderships recommendation to return to work on the basis of the mediators report.
Labour Solidarity and Bureaucratic Backstabbing
The teachers strike showed the power of the labour movement to take collective action on its own behalf and that of other victims of capitalist austerity. By defying the capitalists anti-labour laws and winning active support from other unionists as well as parents and students, the BCTF was able to fend off a major union-busting assault. This has important lessons for workers everywhere, including throughout the B.C. public sector, where most contracts expire over the next year.
As elsewhere in the country, workers in B.C. have faced an unrelenting war on jobs, union rights and social services. Thousands of workers have been thrown on the scrapheap, hospitals closed and support services for women slashed. School classrooms overflow with 30 or more students, many of whom need ESL instruction, while students, many without books or access to computers, have to sit on window ledges due to lack of desks. At the same time, the government has whipped up racism against immigrants and Native people in an attempt to keep the working class divided. Many of the victims of these attacks were on the front lines in defense of the teachers.
The Liberal governments attempt to pose as a defender of public education fell completely flat. Parents actively backed the strike by the thousands, some bringing food to the pickets, while students organized support rallies. Members of the heavily immigrant Hospital Employees Union (HEU), who staged their own militant strike in defense of jobs and public health care 18 months earlier, joined BCTF protests.
While the teachers were able to force some concessions from the government, their strike also showed the treachery of the current labour misleaders—and especially of their political arm, the NDP. The NDP governments that ruled B.C. in the 1990s began the austerity onslaught that has since been heightened under the Liberals. The New Democrats instituted public-sector wage controls and broke a strike by CUPE school workers in Vancouver. In opposition, they sometimes posture as friends of workers and the poor. But the NDP opposed the teachers strike from the outset. Standing by the government-imposed salary freeze, provincial party leader Carole James insisted that teachers should follow the law . People accept consequences when they dont follow the law (Vancouver Sun, 18 October). Spreading panic about the 600,000 students out of class, NDP education critic John Horgan opposed the governments Bill 12 only on the cynical basis that it came down too soon.
Leaders of the B.C. Federation of Labour spoke at several strike rallies, but behind the scenes B.C. Fed president Jim Sinclair worked to demobilize the spreading strike action. The B.C. Fed tops pulled the plug on the October 21 solidarity strike in Vancouver, leaving CUPE to act alone in support of the teachers in B.C.s largest city. Sinclair demanded that the BCTF accept mediator Readys report even before its provisions were made public. With the top labour bureaucrats signalling that they would abandon the BCTF if the strike continued, many teachers saw no alternative but to return to work.
This is far from the first time that the labour misleaders have intervened to stop large-scale strike action against the hated Liberal government. In May 2004, as unionists throughout B.C. were set to shut down the province in solidarity with the HEU strike, the Fed worked with top HEU leaders to cook up a secret deal that sent hospital workers back to work with hundreds of layoffs, a longer workweek and the same 15 percent pay cut the government had demanded going into the strike. As furious strikers denounced this treachery, the labour tops told workers to channel their anger into votes for the NDP in the coming provincial elections. They were joined by a host of reformist left groups—the pseudo-Trotskyist FightBack, International Socialists, Communist Party and more—who lied to the workers that the thoroughly pro-capitalist NDP could be a progressive alternative to the Liberals.
In sharp contrast, in our interventions at strike rallies and pickets during both the HEU and BCTF strikes, the Trotskyist League emphasized the need for a break with the NDP and the forging of a new labour leadership that can set the workers on the path of class struggle against the capitalist system.
Capitalist Courts and Cops: Tools of the Oppressor
As teachers prepared to vote on the proposed settlement on October 21, the courts levied a $500,000 fine on the BCTF. This was the largest civil contempt fine in Canadian history, an outrageous theft of unionists hard-earned dues money. The judges edict showed graphically how the courts are not neutral. Rather they are—together with the prisons, cops and army—a core component of the capitalists state, an institution whose whole purpose is defending capitalist law and order against the working class and oppressed.
There can be no fairness or democracy between exploiter and exploited. The illusions pushed by the labour bureaucrats that the capitalist state is something other than an enemy of the workers cause are deadly dangerous. BCTF president Jinny Sims expressed these illusions succinctly when, faced with a media witchhunt over the unions defiance of Bill 12, she made crystal clear that we respect the courts.
Respect for the bosses laws is a mantra that has led to the defeat of countless strikes. Unions themselves used to be illegal. It took years of hard class struggle waged in defiance of these laws—including union leaders prepared to go to jail rather than bow to strikebreaking politicians and judges—for working people to wrest what gains they have won from the ruling class. It was, for example, an illegal 1965 national postal strike that won the right to strike for workers in the federal public sector. Elements among the striking teachers, whose strike was deemed illegal from day one, understood the stakes in their struggle. One teacher in Vancouver who thanked our comrades for coming to the picket line in solidarity, bought a copy of our press and explained that he was getting materials ready to read in prison.
The cops who bust heads to enforce the capitalists laws against workers pickets also brutalize and imprison immigrants and Native people in inner-city ghettos like Vancouvers Downtown Eastside. Yet many union leaders, joined by the reformist pseudo-socialists, embrace cops and prison guards as fellow workers. Unionized jail guards were welcomed at the October 17 mass rally for the teachers in Victoria. In Toronto on November 1, leaders of the powerful Amalgamated Transit Union actually built a union contingent for a reactionary, 4,000-strong cop rally demanding that the city government give them more money and better working conditions. Supporting cop unions is suicide for working people—cops have no place in the labour movement. Better working conditions for the police means better conditions to brutalize workers and minorities. Labour must defend immigrants and the poor against racist cop terror!
Labour Militancy and Revolutionary Leadership
Since 2001, workers have repeatedly mobilized against the Campbell government. From the HEU strike to the teachers strike, the B.C. working class has again shown that it is the most militant and class-conscious in all of English-speaking North America. Moreover, as shown especially in the hospital workers strike, over the past several decades the once overwhelmingly white B.C. labour movement has been invigorated by the infusion of hundreds of thousands of immigrants from India, the Philippines, China and elsewhere. Such workers, who remain targets for anti-Asian racism and bigotry, can form a human bridge to the struggles of working people internationally.
But B.C. labour remains hamstrung by a leadership that pushes the lie that there can be a partnership between capital and labour, and that Canadian workers share a common national interest with their exploiters. This was shown at rallies of the locked-out TWU phone workers, where the union tops calls to keep jobs in Canada have fostered ugly chauvinism over the outsourcing of work to India and the Philippines. The poison of nationalism, often accompanied by anti-immigrant racism, divides the working class, setting it up for defeat. What is needed is internationalist solidarity with workers abroad and defense of the rights of immigrants at home—the only road to forge fighting workers unity against the attacks of the ruling class.
United Canada patriotism and chauvinism against Quebec—a distinct nation with its own language and culture—have further divided the working class by inflaming nationalist animosities. Anti-Quebec bigotry is especially virulent in Western Canada, thanks in large part to the NDPs pro-Canada demagogy. To take on and defeat the exploiters, working people must reject flag-waving unity with their bosses and back independence for Quebec, support for which has once again surged among the Québécois amid the federal Liberals sponsorship scandal.
All this points to the need for a new, class-struggle labour leadership, breaking workers from the treacherous NDP. Underlining their role as enforcers of capitalist oppression at home and abroad, the federal New Democrats have until recently propped up the corrupt Liberal government in Ottawa. This included endorsing a budget centered on an increase in military spending of more than $12 billion—to be used, among other things, to reinforce the imperialist occupation of Afghanistan.
Slashing jobs by the thousands; destroying medicare; starving public education of funding; whipping up racism and chauvinism to divide and rule; aiding U.S. military adventures: the capitalist rulers of this country are ruining the lives of workers and the poor. Their system must be swept away. But for this to happen requires forging a revolutionary party that can make the workers conscious of the need to rip power from the exploiters and create a society organized to meet human needs, not private profit. Our model is the 1917 Russian Revolution, led by V.I. Lenins and Leon Trotskys Bolshevik Party. The only way to guarantee good living conditions, jobs for all and an end to grinding exploitation and oppression is by expropriating the capitalist class through socialist revolution. As Trotsky wrote in the 1938 Transitional Program, founding document of the Fourth International:
If capitalism is incapable of satisfying the demands inevitably arising from the calamities generated by itself, then let it perish. Realizability or unrealizability is in the given instance a question of the relationship of forces, which can be decided only by the struggle. By means of this struggle, no matter what its immediate practical successes may be, the workers will best come to understand the necessity of liquidating capitalist slavery.