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Looking Backwards: a Snapshot of Decades of Union Betrayals in BC

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.

One of the many differences between the Heartattack direct action march against the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, and the Get of the Fence direct action march against the G20 in Toronto, is that there was almost a complete absence of organized Labour involved in anti-olympics organizing.

The support of rank and file unionists was noticeably absent, and would have contributed greatly to organizational capacity, but the absence of Big Union Bosses and Organized Union Leadership was a breath of fresh air that let community activists loose of the overbearing bureaucracy, fake radical posturing, and eventual bitter sell out that comes with the weight of their organizations.

Initially, Union organizations had been part of anti-olympic activity, but quickly died off --coincidently- as they were offered contracts at Olympics venues. Prompting one older anti-poverty activist to say, “They’d build gas chambers if it was a union contract.”

Harsh words, but over the last ten years B.C. has seen Union Bosses shaking hands with government and big business in back room deals that has decimated the gains union workers have fought for –layoffs, privatization, wage cuts, etc. and betrayed community groups that both relied on the support from unions and in turn offered solidarity and support to them. And in addition, Olympics Venues and the investment and development to proceed them is on Unceded Indigenous Territory, and is contributing to the destruction of native land, thus negatively impacting native communities and cultures feeding into Canada’s ongoing policy of genocide of native peoples. 

After the anti-G20riot there has been a lot of criticism directed at anarchists and other militants’ actions, so in the spirit of fair play, let’s turn the lens around for a few minutes to see if Union Organizing could use an improvement here or there…

To people who had been organizing in BC for the ten years before the anti-Olympics movement, Big Union’s sellout was little surprise. In 2001, Gordon Campbell and the Liberal Party took over BC government. There was a massive uprising in B.C. from all sectors, much of it relying heavily on the organizational power of unions. Also, importantly, union organizers, leadership, and rank and file members really stepped up to the plate to support non-union sectors of resistance. Including Union and more mainstream groups learning about and incorporating the perspectives of more marginalized groups.  There was a lot of movement integration and solidarity. Then one by one, Union leadership sold out it’s own membership, and in turn, the non-union organizing that had been gaining strength.

BC Federation of Labour held two huge rallies to protest the policies of the Liberal government, one in Victoria in Feb 2002, then another in Vancouver in May. Even though these events mobilized thousands of people --union members and non-union activists-- BC Fed did little to nothing with this momentum... Meanwhile, the Liberal agenda continued and social unrest grew. There was lots of Union activity, but in particular, the BC Ferry Workers strike and the Hospital Employees Union Strike were critical points. By late 2003, the BC Ferry Workers Union was on strike. The attitude of the workers was characterized as militant, with one report saying,

“Ferry workers at a number of picket lines vowed that they were willing to go all the way, and even be arrested by police.”

“December 12, the union “leaders” agreed to binding arbitration and called off the strike. While some workers appeared to be glad to see the end of the strike, many people felt that the struggle had been defused from above at a crucial juncture. Many more people had prepared to travel to the picket lines to support the striking workers, taking into account the possibility of the police intervening, only to hear that the strike had suddenly ended. There was a growing call for the strike to generalize: from supporters, the already striking IWA forest workers, and from ferry workers themselves. Many were excited by the new possibilities that the ferry workers’ determination had opened up and wanted to help to widen the struggle.” -- Concerned Citizen**

In May 2004, the Hospital Employees Union was on strike. BC was on the verge of a General Strike, and the night before it was to be called, Unions bosses forced a deal on HEU workers that they weren’t even allowed to vote on, and never made the call for a General Strike, even though it was passed in the BC Federation of Labour AGM.  This prompted The BC Fightback Solidarity Caucus to state:

“An effective and durable general strike may or may not have been a real possibility, but that's not the issue. It was possible to inflict a resounding defeat on the Campbell Liberals and their corporate backers. On May 2 we were on the brink of BC labour's biggest struggle in decades, a massive strike wave that could have driven a stake through the heart of the Liberals' privatization of health care services. We had the biggest chance in three years to defeat Campbell, and it was torn from our fingers by the capitulation of our own leaders.” -- David Camfield quoting the Solidarity Caucus**

The opposition to a conservative right wing government, large scale social unrest and Union calls for a General Strike were all mirror images of BC in 1983, when a broad based movement called for a General Strike against the Social Credit Government in what people called “Operation Solidarity” But is referred to as “Operation Sellout” to those who bitterly remember it.

In July 1983, there was a huge rally at the Victoria Legislature, drawing 25,000 union workers and community activists. By Aug, a rally in Vancouver drew 50,000 people and crowds of 1000 to 4000 in towns around BC. At this time union and community groups were amalgamated into the Solidarity Coalition to be led by the BC Federation of Labour.

“While many groups protested this amalgamation the movement was wooed by union dollars and resources. Social/human rights groups were swamped and marginalized by union leadership.”

“By Oct 1983, the BCGEU was ready to strike. Their contract was up and negotiations looked grim. Labour leadership planned ‘escalating job action’ 200,000 workers were prepared to strike. Union leadership threatened ‘a general shutdown of the province’ if legislative repression was used against strikers. Meanwhile, union leaders were told to ‘avoid using the term ‘general strike’’ … The Teachers union joined the BCGEU in striking … By November BC Federation of Labour Vice-President Jack Monroe stated, “If they [Social Credit Government] want a war, we’re going to give them a war.” -- excerpts from Bryan D. Palmer**

13 Days later, Monroe was literally in  Premier Bill Bennett’s living room signing away everything in the Kelowna Agreement(1983) –which gave some minor concessions to some union workers, but left community activists in the cold. This effectively destroyed the Solidarity Movement, which shortly after faded away.

*

These huge historically significant organizational efforts –where unionists had their own internal struggles between more moderates and radicals, where community activist groups had the same lateral conflicts to resolve around focus and tactics, where everyone on the ground had to get it together to figure out how to work together. All these people spent hours of their days, days of their weeks, weeks of their years organizing, working and building –and it was all wiped out with the stroke of a pen by a few big wigs in some office high above us all.

What if in 1983, unionists and community mobilization hadn't been snuffed out, but had been allowed to blossom and grow, and over the last 30 years developed complex and trusted methods of coordination and solidarity? What if the General Strike was called that day in May 2004? Would it have made any difference to anti-G20 resistance on June 26 2010?

I may not be a labour historian, but it seems to me, that Union Bosses really are dangerous, arrogant, bureaucrats who have strangled resistance into submission time and again. The structural failure of Union organizations are real life destructive rituals carried out for it’s own benefit. Union Structure endemically fails unions members and non-union community activists. In BC, Big Union Leadership has been the biggest factor against the success of mass movements, –because whenever they actually arise, the Union Bosses are there to suffocate it.

 

 

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References:
**From an article, ‘Perspective on the BC Ferry Strike.’ December 13, 2003.
by Concerned Citizen
(http://vanarchive.wordpress.com/2009/11/09/perspective-on-the-bc-ferry-strike-2003/)

**An Analysis of the Hospital Employees Union Strike of 2004. February 2005.
by David Camfield
(http://solidaritycaucus.org/?p=33)

**Neoliberalism and working-class resistance in British Columbia: the hospital employees' union Struggle, 2002-2004. Journal of Canadian Labour Studies ‘Labour/Le Travail’ Spring, 2006
by David Camfield
(http://www.lltjournal.ca/index.php/llt/article/view/1105)

** The Rise and Fall of British Columbia’s Solidarity
by Bryan D. Palmer
from the book of essays:  "Character of Class Struggle” edited by Bryan Palmer, McClelland and Stewart, 1986

**Spot the Difference: Union and Community Mobilization against the Social Credit in 1983 compared to Union and Community Mobilization against the Liberals in 2002 (a report back on a black block action during the BCFed Labour Rally in Victoria, Feb 2nd 2002)
by me, self published 2002.

 
 


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1505 words

Comments

Good piece

Thanks for writing this very informative expose on the betrayals of the BC union movement.  While these particular examples are particular egregious, the parallels can be found all across North America.  

Big labour unions have long been co-opted into the repressive apparatus of the state - and their leaders are these days nothing more than politicians and hacks.

But I strongly believe that there remains a revolutionary potential in the rank-and-file of these organizations.  What is needed is a dual-organization policy that seeks to establish democratic Workers Councils inside the existing union structures - a way of organizing radical blocks based more along prefigurative, grassroots lines that could mitigate the heirarchy inherent in the larger organizations, and could potentially become a greater catalyst for working class solidarity.

prefigurative, grassroots

"...a way of organizing radical blocks based more along prefigurative, grassroots lines..."

That's an inspiring thought. Is anyone working on anything like this, even in terms of fleshing out a plan? Are there precedents for this kind of approach working elsewhere?

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