British Columbia (BC) teacher’s contracts expired on 30 June 2006; the last group of BC public sector employees left without a new contract this year. Teachers demanded a 25% pay rise, over 3 years, to bring their pay in line with teachers from other provinces, such as Ontario and Alberta, and to keep up with inflation. On 7 June, members of the British Columbia Teachers Federation (BCTF) voted 85.2% in favour for industrial action to take place in September, at the beginning of the fall term to fight for this.
Other issues teachers are angry with are increases in class sizes, school closures and other cuts to classroom and teachers working conditions – all of which are a massive disgrace as BC is one of the provinces in Canada with a budget surplus.
But just hours before the end of 30 June deadline, a deal was struck between BCTF leaders and the employers. The main parts of the deal are that there will be a 16% pay increase, but over 5 years. All teachers will get a $4,000 signing bonus, which was only available if a deal was done before the end of 30 June. This divisive measure was used previously by the government against other sections of public sector workers, to lower their pay demands and to get unions to sign deals earlier to put off strike action. BCTF leaders recommend a vote in favour of the deal to teachers who will go to the ballots again, in the new term.
For now, strike action by the teachers looks unlikely to take place in the new term. The BC government conducted a vicious TV advertising campaign to try to put maximum pressure on teachers to shake their confidence. But it would be a mistake for the government to come away from this feeling too confident. Although the BC government got a deal, which they were desperate for, to avoid further militant action by teachers, it would be wrong for the BC government to see this as a ‘green light’ to go ahead with any of their planned neo-liberal cuts, including privatisation, both in education and throughout the public sector.
Lessons of strike actions
It was less than a year ago, in October 2005 that over 40,000 teachers took part in a province wide strike, when their potential strength was shown. Despite legislation declaring the strike “illegal”, the threat of court fines and threatened imprisonment of union leaders, such as the BCTF leader, Jinny Sims, support for the teachers’ strike from other sections of workers, students and parents continued to grow and a few gains were made.
Understandably, the BCTF and their members wanted more strike action to be the last resort. But teachers should feel confident in making a stand in the future. There was huge support across BC during last year’s strike, from parents, students and other sections of workers, which was still growing when the strike ended. A successful one-day solidarity action was taken by members of CUPE (Canadian Union of Public Sector Employees) during last year’s strike across BC, as well as action by teachers from across Canada, who attended a mass teachers’ rally to show their support for the BC teachers’ action.
In Northern BC, reports also showed the potential that exists for workers’ solidarity across both the public and private sector. One example is when teachers’ supporters set up a picket line at a paper mill and steel worker union members, which represent many forestry and mill workers in BC, refused to cross the picket line.
But the potential for the strike growing to other sections of workers was not realised. Many were prepared to take a stand in solidarity with the teachers, but were held back by leaders in the BC Federation of Labour (BCFED). After the successful one day action of CUPE members, future planned action, which would have involved an even wider section of workers to escalate the action, was called off. This action, if gone ahead, would have hit the economic heartland of the lower BC mainland, including Vancouver city. But union leaders, scared of what would happen if action escalated, and under pressure from big business and the government to end the strike as swiftly as possible, called off solidarity action.
The fight goes on – no to neo-liberal attacks on public services!
When the strike ended, last year, it left teachers and other workers with a new feeling of confidence. But with a lack of leadership, a lack of direction as to how the action could have been escalated, and many of the main demands still not met, questions will inevitably be raised about what will happen next time, during future strike action, to ensure their demands are won.
The Stephen Harper federal [national] government - a minority administration led by the right wing Conservatives - are clear they want to continue a neo-liberal agenda, pushing for more cuts and an escalation of involvement of private companies in public services. In many parts of Canada, health and education are facing schemes similar to that of Britain’s Public Finance Initiative (PFI) and Public Private Partnership (PPP).
These policies are strongly opposed by workers and local communities, who are petrified their public services are being run into the ground. Many workers look at the cost of health and education in the US, as well as the failure of the privatisation policies in Britain, and are determined to fight to stop the same happening across Canada.
This mood and preparedness to fight is to the advantage of all public sector workers throughout BC and Canada. The last general strike in BC was in 1987 and over the past few years BC saw combative strikes take place against neo-liberal policies and over pay. BC ferry workers and health and education workers were just some sections of the working class that took industrial action. During last year’s teachers strike, there were chants and placards on mass rallies calling for a general strike. But the union leaders’ actions often stopped just short of effectively spreading action to many other workers, which would have seriously put the possibility of another general strike on the agenda.
Although a deal was proposed for the teachers, and other public sector workers’ leaders accepted deals to renew their contracts, earlier this year, the mood to fight cuts and privatisation is still strong.
This mood, combined with the federal and provincial government’s arrogant determination to increase neo-liberal cuts (although BC province has a budget surplus), will leave many workers with no choice but to take strike action if they are to try to stop these policies.
Need for democratic fighting unions and a new workers’ party
But the recent contract deals, the lessons of the teachers’ strike, last year, and the role of union leaders, such as the BCFED leaders, shows the urgent need for democratic, accountable unions with a fighting programme. Union officials should be elected and subject to immediate recall, and receive the average wage of the workers they represent, if they are to offer a fighting working class leadership that can be a strong match against further cuts and privatisation.
Ultimately, to help properly equip the working class with what is necessary for a fight-back, the need for a fighting new workers’ party is paramount.
Everyday, Stephen Harper’s Conservative federal [national] government is dragged deeper into the quagmire of Afghanistan, which has never been a popular war in Canada, and which is seen by many workers and youth as a war of the US government. The Canadian troop death and injury toll grows and the conflict does not have majority support from the working class and youth.
The opposition Liberal Party is in crisis and has yet to choose a new leader after the departure of former leader Paul Martin. The social democratic New Democratic Party (NDP) has proved, time and again, they are incapable of providing the working class and youth with an alternative to the profit-first policies of the main parties. During the October 2005 teachers’ strike, the NDP were forced to support the teachers – but only in words. Despite the calls for escalated job action and a general strike, the NDP failed to help build and strengthen a movement that would have extended the teachers’ actions. This proves, yet again, the NDP cannot be relied upon to provide any alternative to capitalism.
What is urgently needed is a new mass workers’ party that fights for a socialist alternative against neo-liberal attacks, to end the rule of capitalism, and to fight for a democratic socialist society.