May Day arrives in Canada’s most dogmatic province and one doesn’t expect Premier Gordon Campbell to be attending any functions in person, not that he would have been invited anyways. His appearances may be limited to effigies and posters expressing anger at him and his government. For this May Day, finds the BC union movement mobilizing in numbers not seen since the Solidarity marches of 1983.
21 years after BC workers last took to the streets in large numbers; the scene is set for large scale job action on Monday morning, as Labour responds to the challenge of the Campbell governments Bill 37. The Liberal government’s answer to the Health Employees Union job action of the past week, which resulted in cancelled surgeries and confusion at hospitals across the province.
Bill 37 is a contentious piece of legislation that not only orders the roughly 43,000 Health care workers back to work, but retroactively reduces their salaries by 15%. Leading to the possibility that the unionized workers in the labs, the kitchens and housekeeping to name a few, may have to write a check for money received, now wanted back. Labour analysts observe that this is an unheard of twist in the world of labour negotiating.
With the imposition of Bill 37, HEU workers refused to report to work on Thursday, to help make their point they were joined on their “protest lines” by large numbers of sympathetic union workers on Friday morning. Effectively launching May Day one day early as civic workers in Vancouver, teachers in Victoria and scattered other unionized workers took to the streets in a show of encouragement. As the support for the cause spread, the promise of even further disruptions were promised for Monday, setting the stage for yet another historic day in British Columbia history.
Monday’s walkouts are expected to include the over 70,000 CUPE workers both provincial and federal in BC, the 50 odd thousand BCGEU membership, the large BC Teachers federation will be there, as will workers for BC Hydro, BC Rail, Ferry workers and any other unionized worker that falls under the umbrella of the BC Federation of Labour.
In a bid to defuse the escalating situation Gordon Cambpell and his cabinet members hit the airwaves on Friday to try and get their message across. The bone of contention of the wage rollbacks was reworded, with the premier suggesting that if the HEU membership were to make some other concessions the issue of money wouldn’t necessarily have to be addressed. His comments were not particularly well received, the momentum of the protest seemingly taking on a life of its own.
Union leaders were revising a schedule of escalating protest for the next thee days, the public sector unions leading the way on Monday, with hotel workers and cruise ship attendees hitting the streets by Wednesday, stretching out into the private sector to show business leaders how the union movement views the damage of the Campbell agenda.
The government may have overplayed its hand in its quick and harsh imposition of the Bill 37 points. Had they ordered the workers back onto the job without the retroactive pay cut, perhaps the massive reaction would have been blunted. Instead of laying out a timetable of wage rollbacks and benefit reductions, as well as a hard number on potential job losses giving the workers some control over their destiny, the gov’t used the stick in the eye approach to negotiating. What we saw Friday is the expected reaction.
The workers in the eye of the storm are in areas the government has claimed are departments that they plan on privatizing in the health sector. The government intends to privatize the housekeeping, kitchen services and other non medical types of occupation. Private Companies that pay significantly less than the HEU rates of pay. All part of the government’s agenda to spend more on patient care and less on ancillary services. The plan is a debating point that has led to the confusion and near anarchy of health care in BC these days.
While there are plans on trying to negotiate a solution to the situation by Monday, it’s generally expected that Labour will use the HEU dispute to send a message to the government. Having been involved in a number of skirmishes with the government over the last two years, this may finally be the incident that galvanizes the union movement. The union leadership voicing the theory that if the government will do this to the HEU, how long before they move on to other unions.
It’s a tricky situation for both government and unions alike. For the government coming across as vindictive and spoiling for a fight may end up costing it support from those British Columbians who voted Liberal, but may now become uneasy with the belligerent tone of the agenda. They may believe that changes have to be made to the atmosphere of public service in BC, but steamrolling legislation through the assembly without first setting out an alternative course is a recipe for the kind of action we have seen today and what we are promised for next week.
For the unions the task is equally daunting, a massive show of force may make for great television optics and certainly will send a message. But should the protests continue over any length of time, a massively inconvenienced public may turn on them giving the Liberals another opening to reign in the militants.
Lost in the bombastic nature of both sides are the patients, folks waiting for cancer tests or children at Sick Kids hospital who have had their surgeries cancelled find themselves in an unsettled situation, made even worse as they end up held hostage to two sides that seemingly want to prove points. It’s an uneasy time for those that might be sick in BC at the moment, unknown when you may receive your treatment, realizing that in some cases time works against you with each days delay. While both sides posture over agendas and point accusing fingers at each other, perhaps a few moments of solidarity with the folks caught in the middle through no fault of their own would be a guiding hand in the dispute.
Unless saner heads prevail on both sides of the dispute, Monday will loom large in historical significance for BC. 21 years ago the Solidarity marches took the province into uncharted territory only to fizzle out as Bill Bennett met with Jack Munro and Art Kube, the rhetoric of the day similar to that of today but in the end the unions went back to the job, the protests eventually cooled down as quickly as they were heated up.
21 years later everything old seems new again. Will BC step across the abyss, or will it once again take a step back. The expectation is that on Monday the heat gets turned up, by Wednesday British Columbians will know if this is the long awaited battle for BC. Ever since the Liberal government took power it’s been an underlying theme of the province’s governance, the collision of ideologies. The Liberals have avoided the clash in previous disputes; they may not be able to put off their destiny much longer.