Canada: Teachers’ return to work in British Columbia

Union leaders fail courageous struggle

On Monday 24 October, tens of thousands of teachers in the Canadian province of British Columbia returned to work after a courageous stand against the right wing provincial Liberal government. They rocked big business and the political establishment, giving workers, generally, increased confidence.

However, around 40,000 teachers reluctantly voted last week to accept the proposal of a mediator, Vince Ready, and to end their strike, which was deemed “illegal” by an anti-union government and capitalist courts. Just over 70% voted in favour to go back to work, following the recommendation of the leaders of the teachers’ union.

The strike was solid or two weeks, despite legislation that made strike action by teachers’ illegal, court actions freezing union funds and a massive C$500.000 fine. Throughout the strike, the government’s increasing attacks against the teachers were due to their fear of escalating working class action challenging the Liberals’ and their neo-liberal policies. As the action developed, public support continued to increase for the teachers, not decline, as the Liberals had hoped. A one-day of solidarity action by public sector workers, called by the BC Federation of Labour (BCFL) and the Canadian Union of Public Sector Employees (CUPE), was well attended. The actions took place in different regions of the province with libraries, recreation canters, liquor stores, transit workers, and many more workers taking solidarity action. This was because the attacks by the Liberal government were seen to be aimed at the right of free, high quality, education for all, and because of ever increasing privatisation and involvement of big business in the public sector. Public sector workers feared that they would be attacked next, as many of their contracts are up for re-negotiation in spring 2006.

When the government refused to negotiate, unless the teachers returned to work, and the BC Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) refused, a mediator, Vince Ready, was called in. Proposals put forward by in Ready’s report included:

  • $40 million to harmonise teachers’ salaries across BC province
  • $40 million for the teachers’ long term disability fund
  • $20 million to reduce class sizes and for special needs
  • A raise in salaries for substitute teachers

Ready’s proposals amount to about $100 million, which is less than the $150 million that the government saved by not paying the teachers during the strike as Premier Gorden Campbell boasted. BC schools Trusties Association President, Penny Tees, said that money saved during the strike would remain at the district level, and be funnelled back into class rooms. But last Friday the provincial government announced that the money would be used to pay for the mediator’s recommendations. The government welcomed Vince Ready’s proposals, as they amount to no pay raise for teachers, essentially leaving the current two year pay freeze in place from June 2004 to July 2006. The proposal to reduce classroom sixes is not guaranteed. The deal has also left anti-strike laws in place.

Now the teachers have returned back to work they are left open to new attacks. The court’s Special Prosecutor, who was appointed by the government, said, resulting from the strike, there still is the possibility of legal action against union leaders and individual teachers. The government is already showing signs of wanting to continue attacks on class room conditions. In an interview on CBC radio, given on the day teachers returned to work, the education minister, Shirley Bond, said that amending the schools act is a question of “if” and not “when”.

Initially, when Ready’s report was first released, the BC Federation of Labour (BCFL) demanded that the government produce written guarantees on issues such as class sizes. Bu the unspoken role of the BCTF leadership was to get the teachers back to work. Like the opposition social democratic New Democratic Party (NDP), they feared an escalation in strike action. This was highlighted when the BCFL President, Jim Sinclair, publicly announced they would hold a vote on Ready’s report. Later, the BCFL called off workers’ solidarity action in Vancouver and the Lower Main Land, the financial hart of the province. This sent a message to teachers that they would be on their own and would not get anymore solidarity action.

The back room negotiations and the lack of support from trade union leaders and the BCFL, shows the need for accountability and genuine democracy in the unions.

The social democratic NDP is no alternative for successful working class struggle. The policies of the NDP, who held power in BC between 1991 and 2001, paved the way for more attacks on the working class by the Liberal government.

Despite its record in government, the NDP was able to make headway in the polls because the Liberals in power carried out such vicious cuts. In recent provincial elections, the New Democratic Party achieved 41.27% of the popular vote, giving them 33 seats compared to 46.03% and 46 seats for the Liberals. This was a massive increase in the vote for the NDP after having been reduced to only 2 seats in the elections before. Since 2001, anger has grown at the increasing neo-liberal attacks of the Liberal government. The New Democrats conducted a campaign which took advantage of workers’ frustration and rage towards the governing Liberals and their policies of cuts to health, education and social programmes.

Carole James, leader of the BC NDP, promised, “Things are going to be very different in the legislature, there will be a lot more New Democrats to stand strong, speaking up for things that matter to people in their communities and holding this government accountable for their actions”

Many workers and trade unionists voted for the NDP so that they could have a fighting opposition to the Liberals. But during the election campaign, James distanced the New Democrats from labour organisations.

From the very start of the teachers’ strike, the NDP tried to undermine the industrial action by siding with the Liberal government. NDP leaders called on teachers to “obey the rule of law”. The New Democrats supported the ruling by Judge Brenda Brown, from the BC Supreme Court, freezing the assets of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation (BCTF), preventing the union from using its funds for any strike activity and effectively ending strike pay.

As public support for the strike grew, the NDP were forced to say they supported the teachers’ action. But this was just empty words. Throughout the strike the New Democrat leaders did not call for any concrete action. Instead, James called on the government to negotiate with the teachers. He feared the development of a general strike in support of the teachers.

The New Democrats see no fundamental alternative to the government’s profit driven policies and to capitalism. But their attempts to straddle the separate and competing interests of both the working class and big business will go nowhere.

Bosses’ hint at ‘investment’ strike

On Sunday 16 October, BC business leaders held a press conference to comment on the teachers’ strike. They accused teachers and other workers of creating ‘chaos’ and ‘anarchy’ and of undermining the provinces’ economy. Big business feared the growing anger of the working class against them and the Liberal government. They hinted at the possibility of an investment strike, if workers continued to oppose the Liberal government.

Kevin Evans, from the Coalition of Business, expressed his concerns over industrial action taken and possibly planned by workers, “It [the recent teachers’ strike] may look small in comparison with what we are in for in the spring [2006]”.

Evans referred to the 90% of public services contracts that come up for negotiation next spring.

Despite the teachers’ poor deal, it seems the combative mood of public sector workers is still high. The President of the BC Government Employees Union (BCGEU) warned bosses, “Going to legislature to solve a bargaining issue is just not acceptable and don’t try it”.

The union and labour leadership in BC increasingly find themselves caught between an angry and combative working class and the neo-liberal policies of the Liberal government and big business.

Preceding the current teachers’ strike, 2003 saw ferry workers take strike action, and, in 2004, thousands of health workers took action fighting against pay cuts. Next year holds the possibility of public sector workers taking a stand against neo-liberal cuts. This, combined with massive public support for these actions, shows the working class is more than ready to fight back against years of cuts and attacks.

Yet the actions of the New Democratic Party and the union federation in British Columbia (BCFL) urgently highlight the need for a fighting programme and democratic and accountable unions to win victories for workers. Union officials should be fully accountable, subject to immediate recall, and receive the average wage of the workers they represent.

The membership of the teachers’ union and the other BC workers need to discuss the lessons of the recent strike action as part of the process of building unions that act in their members’ interests. Immediate industrial action must be the reply of teachers to any new government or court attacks on their conditions and rights. This includes a call for wider solidarity action by other workers, if necessary.

The recent magnificent action by teachers and other workers also shows the urgent need for a party that represents workers and youth – a new workers’ party. Such a party would fight for a socialist alternative to resist neo-liberal attacks, the profit first policies of the Liberals, the NDP, and all the main parties and, ultimately, to end the rule of capitalism and for a democratic, socialist society.

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