Frustrated by the lack of action against the BC Liberal government, CUPE BC President Barry O’Neill assured delegates to the BC Federation of Labour’s November 2003 convention that CUPE was prepared to take action. A later meeting of CUPE local presidents committed to organizing a one-day political strike. The walkout is intended as the first of a series of actions and has been called “Democracy Day”. This article praises the CUPE leadership for supporting militant action; however the methods used to organize the walkout pose a serious threat to the movement.
Marxists in the labour movement have long called for the organization of a one-day general strike to kick out the Campbell Liberals. Their attacks are precisely aimed at breaking the back of the Labour Movement and destroying the will of the working class to fight back. The first wave of layoffs and cuts provoked a mass protest movement in the spring of 2002. Workers were angry and demanded action; however, as we predicted, the movement declined after the leaders refused to organize further action.
At the time we wrote:
“It seems as though the labour leaders intended [the protest on] February 23 to be a day for workers to let off steam and vent some of their frustrations. They just want to get this whole protest business over with so they can get things back to normal. Unfortunately, things can’t get back to normal for the working class of the province.
There are other mass demonstrations being planned. The people of BC are not willing to give up yet. But without an organized expression of our anger the movement will dissipate. Unfortunately the state of ferment will only last so long. People can’t fight forever. This movement needs a leadership that is truly representative of the people. A leadership that isn’t afraid to call a one-day general strike to kick out the Liberals.” Fightback against the BC Liberals Mike Palecek & Alex Grant, March 2002.
The refusal to organize any strike activity against the government emboldened the Liberals, allowing them to drastically cut jobs and services. The Health Employees Union (HEU) suffered the most dramatic losses with the contracting out of large portions of their work. Fortunately, the workers’ movement was diverted, and not decisively defeated. In 2003, workers at the University of British Columbia went on illegal strike and made the government blink. The author of this article played a leading role in a strike that showed workers that the Liberals are not invincible. Later that year, a militant campaign against the privatization of the Coquihalla highway defeated the government. 2003 ended with the fantastic strike of the BC Ferry workers. They defied the government, struck illegally, and forced the government to back off. Significantly, the strike was preceded by the election of a rank-and-file slate to the leadership of the union.
One could almost feel the positive energy as thousands of labour activists lifted their heads, having been shown the success militancy can bring. But the Executive Council of the BC Federation of Labour (BC Fed) was merely content to re-iterate their commitment to fight the Liberals by all methods “up to and including a general strike”, at the same time making it blatantly clear they would do nothing concrete to organize it. Here we see the source of the frustration that has prompted action by the CUPE BC leadership.
How not to organize a general strike
The most common question about the walkout is, “When will it happen?” The plan for Democracy Day is that the CUPE BC leadership will give their members 24 hours notice, possibly in the next week, probably in the next month! The rationale for keeping the date a secret is that we don’t want management to be able to prepare for it. This is clearly an irresponsible tactic; we gain a gram of surprise while losing a ton of momentum. Workers cannot merely be turned on and off at the behest of the leadership. The leadership has nowhere near earned the loyalty of the members to the extent that they will pass so much power over to them. Such a plan leaves the activists unprepared and the rank-and-file uninformed. This “secrecy” effectively blocks the democratic control of the strike by the workers. The success of the UBC Teaching Assistants’ strike was based on the complete disclosure of information to the membership who voted at mass meetings and strike planning meetings on the direction the strike should take. Democratic control by the workers is not only the correct thing to do, it is the only way to inspire the workers of the necessity of the movement and release the great creativity of workers to achieve victory.
The second main question is, “What are the demands of the strike?” This is not at all clear and has nowhere been expressed in simple terms. If there are in fact no demands, then why should a worker lose a day’s pay and risk discipline or even dismissal for something completely abstract? The struggle of working people is nothing if not concrete – we need to know what is worth fighting for; we need to know if we have won or have been defeated.
The most perplexing part of the walkout is how it is divorced from achieving any gains for the workers. In a CUPE BC Democracy Day backgrounder we find the following, “It is essential that we speak to our employers to ensure they understand clearly that this is not a job action. We are not striking or taking any hostile steps against our employers. This is a political protest against the provincial government. Again it is important to clearly inform the employer that Democracy Day has no implication for the collective bargaining process.” What is the point of risking so much for no return? The Liberals have just announced 3 more years of wage freeze after almost a decade of no increases – surely fair wages are an issue which workers can be mobilized around. Besides, the Liberal party is merely the political wing of the employer class and you can be sure the employers will not be neutral in this matter.
The strategy proposed by CUPE BC runs the risk of turning into a disaster where very few workers heed the call to walk out. Such a situation would be a gift to the Liberals and the right-wing in the labour movement who are opposed to militant action. They would say, “You see! CUPE BC launched militant action and it fell flat on its face. The workers are not prepared to act even when given a lead. The workers obviously support the Liberals. It is all hopeless and we must just accept what we are given.”
Marxists will work with all of their efforts to ensure the movement is a success, as defeat has severe reactionary consequences. However, the conditions of success are the following:
1) Set the date!
Secrecy demobilizes the movement. Either set the date or set the condition to trigger the walkout (for example: the next use of back-to-work legislation).
2) Democratic workers control.
The strike must be organized from the bottom up and controlled by the members. Committees of action linking up with local communities will strengthen the movement.
3) Spread the strike.
It cannot be just CUPE workers striking. An appeal must be made to extend the action and put pressure on other union leaders to act.
4) A clear aim.
Partial measures will not cut it and it is fantasy to believe the Liberals can enact legislation to benefit workers. We need to kick out the Liberals and elect an NDP government committed to a socialist program and the reversal of Gordon Campbell’s reactionary legislation.
We cannot give in to moods of frustration. The desire to “do something, anything”, seldom leads to a successful strategy. The movement in BC stands on a knife-edge. 2004 marks a tuning point where the movement has the opportunity to defy the government and gain the momentum to kick them out of office. Bureaucratic control only leads to defeat. “Militant, Democratic, Unionism” is our slogan for victory.