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Big Battles to Come: Perspectives for British Columbia

In British Columbia the 1990's was a decade of disappointment for the working class. When the New Democratic Party was elected to government in 1991, there were huge expectations. After decades of right-wing rule in BC, the NDP was a beacon of hope. But their ten years in government would prove to be a let down to everyone.

The economic boom in the nineties was a boom at the expense of the working class. Increased profit for the capitalists only came as a result of attacks on workers. The NDP government not only failed to improve the lives of the people of British Columbia, but things actually got worse. Personal income was stagnant at best. In 1991, BC wages fell 3.2%. This trend continued throughout the 1990s: 1992 -1.1%, 1993 -1.8%, 1994 -0.4%, 1995 +0.4%, 1996 -1.1%, 1997 +0.2%, 1998 +0.4%, 1999 +1.3%. When inflation is taken into account, this amounts to a steady overall decline in wages. Disposable income also fell as the cost of living rose and wages dropped.

The economy made only very small gains throughout the decade. Gross domestic product grew at an annual growth rate of only a few percent when inflation is taken into account. And British Columbia's growing population meant that GDP per capita declined steadily through the first half of the nineties and made only very meagre gains from 1997 to 99.

When all of this is considered we can see a steady decline of living standards for the average person in British Columbia. The consumer bankruptcy rate is a good indicator of the situation. Bankruptcies rose dramatically throughout the nineties. In 1989 there were just over 2,400 consumer bankruptcies in British Columbia. By the time the NDP left government, this number had quadrupled, to just under 10,000.

The BC New Democratic Party government did have its good side. They improved the labour code, built schools and hospitals and consistently expanded the public service. But within the confines of capitalism, it was completely impossible to achieve what was promised and what was expected. The average person is not concerned with statistics, but cares about their concrete reality. It is little use telling someone the budget is balanced when they've just been laid off and don't know how they'll buy groceries next week.

The NDP also faced a relentless barrage from the media. Any little problem was blown way out of proportion. Scandals were invented. The newspapers talked daily about NDP corruption and mismanagement, overspending and overtaxing. Of course these very same newspapers also donated massive amounts to the Liberal party, and heralded Gordon Campbell as the province's saviour.

It was in this atmosphere that the BC Liberals came to power. They promised the world - A new era for British Columbia, a world class education system, lower taxes, better public services, a booming economy: these are just some of the Liberals' empty promises. And so it was no surprise that the NDP was decimated in the election. The working class felt betrayed by their party; some voted Liberal, some voted Green and many stayed home in disgust. The 2001 election had the lowest voter turnout in over 20 years. The NDP's vote fell by nearly 20%. The party was virtually wiped out of the legislature, left with only two seats. The bosses' party won 77 of 79 seats.

As soon as the election was over, the Liberals began to implement their real agenda. Less than 24 hours into their term, the Liberals handed out a 25% tax cut, most of this went to the rich. They then proceeded to tear up the labour code and slash social services. Hospitals and schools were closed; the minimum wage for new workers was reduced by 25%, and on November 20, 2001 the government announced that one third of the public sector workers in the province would be laid off - the biggest cut in Canadian history.

The working class responded angrily. They had been lied to. They had been betrayed. The labour movement swung into action. February 23, 2002 was a day of protest against the government. Protests were held in over 14 cities across the province. In Victoria over 40,000 gathered on the lawn of the legislature - the largest demonstration in over 20 years. The first whispers of a general strike ran through the crowd.

The movement grew in size and militancy, but the leadership of the labour movement became more and more timid. As the demonstrations grew larger so did the calls for a general strike. To the horror of the leadership of the BC Federation of Labour, the anti-Campbell movement began spiralling out of their control. On May 25, 2002, 45,000 people marched through the streets of Vancouver chanting "General Strike". Ten thousand paper flags demanding "prepare the general strike" were handed out. There was even a plane circling the demonstration with a banner that said "prepare the general strike". The mood at the rally was angry. It was becoming clear that the leadership wasn't prepared to back up their words with action. The program of the demonstration was dragged out for hours before the President of the BC Federation of Labour would take the stage. There were only a few thousand left to hear Jim Sinclair speak.

In November of that year the BC Federation of Labour convention passed a resolution directing their leadership to organize an escalating campaign "up to and including a general strike". Since then not one significant demonstration has been called by the BC Federation of Labour. This betrayal resulted in a temporary lull in the movement.

Workers then turned to the industrial front. In February 2003 teaching assistants at the University of British Columbia struck against tuition increases. After three weeks on the picket line they were legislated back to work. The Campbell government declared them an essential service and removed their right to strike. To the surprise of the Liberal government and the labour leadership, the TA's defied this legislation. The picket lines not only stayed up, but got bigger. After a few days the government was forced to back down. This was the first successful strike since the Liberals had come to power, and it inspired hundreds of other workers to raise their heads.

The UBC TA strike set the stage for bigger actions. In December 2003, the BC Ferry workers struck against cuts. They were met by a similar response from the government. Ferry workers defied their back to work order and staged a full-scale illegal strike. Again, the government was forced to back down.

This movement culminated in a massive strike by the Hospital Employees Union. The HEU has faced the brunt of the BC Liberal's attacks. As the government slowly privatizes the health care system, thousands of hospital workers are being sacked and replaced with workers at or near minimum wage. With the labour movement mobilizing again, and the government digging in their heels, the stage was set for a show down.

On April 25, 2004, 43,000 members of the HEU hit the picket lines. They were immediately joined by 35,000 members of the BC Nurses Union and 15,000 members of the Health Sciences Association who refused to cross the picket lines. The picket lines were large and militant. Picket lines were up at nearly every hospital and nursing home in the province. It was impossible to go out in public without seeing or hearing about the strike.

The government acted swiftly and four days later passed bill 37 ordering the hospital employees back to work. They wanted to make an example out of the HEU. The legislation gave the employers the right to contract out HEU jobs to the private sector, lengthened the work week by an hour and a half and slapped them with a 15% wage cut. To add insult to injury, this wage cut was retroactive, so workers would actually be forced to pay back a portion of their already paid wages!

This was the spark that ignited a powder keg. The next day spontaneous wildcat solidarity action took place all over the province. Municipal workers in Vancouver walked off the job. Workers at BC Hydro construction sites downed tools. Busses stopped. Garbage collectors struck. Several lumber mills were behind picket lines. Teachers threatened to shut down the entire public school system. The strike was spreading at an unbelievable pace.

This made for a fantastic May Day. Over 15,000 showed up for a rally in Vancouver on just 24 hours notice. The march was led by the heroes of the labour movement - thousands of immigrant hospital employees, almost all women. They were followed by Teamsters on Harleys and workers from every union in the city. Speaking at the demonstration and under massive pressure from the rank and file Jim Sinclair, President of the BC Federation of Labour, called a general strike for Monday morning, May 3rd. The strike was no longer about the Hospital Employees Union. "Bring down Gordon Campbell" was the new slogan.

But on May 2nd, in the middle of the night the leadership of the Hospital Employees Union and the BC Federation of Labour held a joint press conference to announce that they had "reached a deal" with the government. The strike was called off and the workers were sold down the river. They were forced to swallow a 15% wage cut (that wasn't retroactive) and 600 employees would be laid off. The leadership betrayed their entire labour movement and the rank and file of the HEU didn't even get the chance to vote on their own contract.

Amidst all of this the New Democratic Party is offering no real solution. The current platform does not include any plans to overturn Campbell's cuts. Carole James, the leader of the NDP, is quick to explain that "you can't unscramble an omelette". They cannot undo what the Campbell government has done without taking capitalism head on and they certainly are not prepared to do that. The new right-turn by the leadership of the NDP and the labour movement represents a betrayal of everything they stand for.

On October 28, 2004 a bi-election was held in the constituency of Surrey-Panorama Ridge. It was expected to be one of the closest elections in decades, but to the surprise of almost everyone the NDP won by a landslide. The NDP won a seat that traditionally has gone to the Liberals with a 20% margin of victory. Despite all of the betrayals and compromises, this victory was possible because of the sheer hatred of the Liberals. "Send Gordon Campbell a message!" was the slogan. They ran an anti-Campbell campaign and people came out to vote against him. This proves that an NDP victory is possible in the May election. But one thing is certain, if the NDP wins the next election it will not be because of the leadership but in spite of it.

The mass organizations of the working class are in a state of turmoil. With the rank and file going one way and the leadership going the other it is only a matter of time before a major confrontation. If the NDP wins the next election, it will only pave the way for big battles in the party. As people see that the leaders of the NDP aren't capable of overturning Campbell's cuts, they will turn against them. As long as the leadership accepts capitalism they will be forced to attack workers. And the working class will fight back. On the other hand, if the Liberals manage to hang on to power, there will be another wave of cuts. The leaders of the labour movement again will not be willing to lead and the workers certainly won't accept another betrayal. We can expect to see growing divisions in all of the mass organizations of the working class. One by one the sell-outs will be thrown out and a new leadership will emerge.

The task of the Marxists is to penetrate these organizations and sow them with ideas that can win. As the crisis of capitalism deepens on a global scale, so will the attacks from the bosses and their cronies in government. Only militant, democratic trade unionism can beat them back. There is no place for cowardice or compromise in the movement. The problems working people face cannot be solved under capitalism. There is no middle road. Our choice is Socialism or Barbarism.

January, 2005