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When British Columbia's teachers defied laws passed by Gordon Campbell's Liberals to stage an "illegal strike" in October, it was the second major showdown with organized labour since the Liberals took power in 2001. The health care workers' strike in April 2004 had seen 43,000 workers in 11 unions join picket lines.
The Liberal government imposed contracts on health care workers and teachers, bypassing collective bargaining and arbitration by legislating their terms directly. "The government tore up the collective agreement in both cases," said Larry Kuehn of the BC Teachers' Federation (BCTF).
Before the 2001 election, Campbell had told the Health Employees Union's (HEU) newspaper, the Guardian, that "I don't believe in ripping up agreements....I have never said I would tear up agreements....I am not tearing up any agreements." Once in power, however, the Liberals imposed pay cuts and replaced over 6,000 public sector workers with corporate contract positions.
While the Campbell government did not cut teachers' positions directly, it did not provide the funding to back up legislation of a 2.5 per cent per year salary increase and other increased costs. School boards were forced to cut teaching staff by 2,600, or eight per cent, and 100 schools were closed. Anger over increased class sizes, lack of separate classes for special needs students and the attack on bargaining rights fueled the decision of 42,000 teachers to go on strike.
The question remains, however: why would Campbell's Liberals actively pick fights with some of the province's largest trade unions?
The initial answer tends to be either that the government has a deep disdain for BC's powerful unions, or that BC politics have always been characterized by showdowns between labour and business-backed right wing governments--depending on who is asked.
"The government doesn't like some of the big public sector unions," said Marc Lee, Senior Economist at the BC office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA). "To injure those unions, they're willing to engage in some fairly bad public policy."
Under the dislike, however, is an agenda. According to some observers, the real motivation is tax cuts and privatization, to which the unions are a significant barrier.
Lee explained that tax cuts provided the justification for deep cuts to public services. When the Liberals first came to power in 2001, they legislated $2.3 billion in tax cuts from an overall budget of around $26 billion. The result, says Lee, was "the biggest deficit in provincial history." Public services budgets were cut by one third, while funding for education was merely frozen.
In the case of education, however, privatization is more subtle.
The BCTF's Larry Kuehn says the Liberals are taking "inch by inch measures" to privatize parts of the education system.
"They are making things more difficult for the public schools," said Kuehn. "It encourages private schools."
"If the public system is starved of funding then people will tend to gravitate towards private alternatives," said Lee. "It is not privatization per se, but does boost the private system."
Kuehn points out that private schools--including, he notes, religious, elite and fundamentalist institutions--receive 50 per cent of the funding per student that public schools get. "They just expanded provisions for special needs students to 100 per cent of what public schools get," said Kuehn. This has been seen by some--especially public school teachers--as a first step to increasing overall funding for private schools.
Dr. Ernie Lightman, a professor in Social Work at the University of Toronto and former faculty member of the London School of Economics, called the tactics used in BC "very analogous to what Margaret Thatcher did in Britain."
"If you're going to do something the other guy doesn't want done, you beat up on his symbol," said Lightman. In Thatcher's case, "Privatization was a way of wrecking the unions."
Lightman, who has studied the tenure of Mike Harris' Conservative government in Ontario, said that privatization in BC is driven by a long history of polarized power struggles between "big labour and big business".
Harris' cuts, he said, were more ideological, and didn't require a showdown with unions. "They said 'we're cutting taxes and we're going to reduce the deficit'." "They shut down womens' shelters because they didn't want to 'break up families,'" said Lightman.
Lightman explains that the relative power of unions in BC is due to the history of natural resource extraction, which is "absolutely essential" to the province's economy. Workers in mining and timber were more vulnerable.
"If you're in an isolated mining town in BC, your work is your life, there's no distinction." "You need a union more than you do in Toronto," where the automobile industry plays a significant role. According to Lightman, the culture of strong, organized labour that developed in the natural resource sector has carried over to the public sector trade unions in BC.
Stephen Howard of the BC Government Employees' Union was optimistic about the future of the ongoing battles over public policy in BC. A "rigid agenda for privatization regardless of the cost -- to taxpayers, in decline of quality of service," said Howard, is leading to "mounting anger", evidence of which can be seen in the public support for the striking teachers.
The high profile strikes, he said, have "helped galvanize public opinion against privatization." The BCTF strike was "a huge victory for the labour movement."
"Audiences outside of BC don't realize the extent that the government has thumbed its nose at workers' rights," said Howard, citing "nine separate occasions" where the government was convicted of "violating basic and fundamental rights of working people" by the International Labour Organization in the last three years. BC, he added, has the "worst record of any provincial government" when it comes to labour.
According to Lee, privatization is losing credibility. "The cost savings aren't materializing the way they planned," he said, citing an "increase in absenteeism" and a "decrease in productivity" in the health care jobs targeted by the government in 2004.
Lightman thinks that the unions are waiting out the government, which is significantly weaker than it was after winning a vast majority of provincial seats in 2001. "They'll make a symbolic stand, and wait and hope for an NDP government."
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.