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The British Columbia Solidarity Movement of 1983: A Tale of Alliance and Betrayal.
by Eric Sommer
:The B.C. Solidarity Movement was by far the largest, and arguably the most important, organized left-wing mass movement in non-Quebec Canada since the Second World War. It’s stirring history of massive solidarity among ordinary people, followed by heart-sickening betrayal by organized labour, contains essential practical lessons for all members of the working class today.
The B.C. Solidarity Movement and General Strike was triggered by the simultaneous introduction into the provincial legislature of a package of approximately 23 reactionary pieces of legislation by the right-wing Social Credit Party provincial government under then-premier Bill Bennet. The thrust of these bills ranged from elimination of the provincial human rights commission, to significant reductions in trade union rights, to elimination of the family services component of the provincial ministry responsible for social welfare, to attenuation of tenant’s rights. Many additional reactionary measures were part of this legislative package.
In response to these bills a gigantic left-populist coalition rapidly emerged. It’s formal geneses was in a mass meeting called by the left-wing B.C. fishermen’s union which brought together hundreds of representatives of highly diverse organizations ranging from major religious organizations, to ethnic organizations, trade unions, women’s organizations, tenants organizations, co-op organizations, small business organizations, and so forth. Out of this meeting, and others modeled on it which quickly followed across the province, grew the B.C. Solidarity Movement.
Broad Scope of The Movement
You had to be present in one or more of the meetings of this movement – and you had to attend at least one of its public rallies – to truly understand its unique power. The very scope of the government bills, attacking simultaneously the economic and social rights of very broad stratas of the people, in effect created an equally broad coalescence of the people. Being present in a Solidarity coalition meeting was very much like being present in a Soviet, as the Sikh federation (we have a very large community of East Indian Sikh’s here), the Chinese organizations, the women’s organizations, the bus drivers, and so forth took their seats in the meeting. Stratas which ordinarily had little or no contact on a formal or political basis, suddenly found themselves working closely together, because they found they NEEDED EACH OTHER. Even the Policeman’s union decided to support the movement, based on the inclusion in the government bills of cutbacks in funding for policing services!
The public rallies of the movement were no less impressive. These rallies, which spread across the province, attracted up to forty or fifty thousand people at a time in the largest provincial city, Vancouver, and everywhere throughout the province drew enthusiastic attendance. The rallies were spirited affairs, variously including political rock and roll music, militant and educational speeches, and visible attendance by organized sectors of the workforce. In one memorable instance at a rally in Vancouver, for example, all the hospital workers marched into the arena wearing their workcloths, and the Vancouver Fire department band paraded in its uniforms.
Labour Movement And Community Groups
A lynchpin of the entire Solidarity movement was the participation, as a central actor, of the B.C. Federation of Labour. It provided much of the organizing muscle and funding for the movement, and it supplied much of the push to bring out the public and its own members to the movement’s rallies. Moreover, both the public and private rhetoric of its leaders such as Art Kubie, then head of the labour federation, was very left-populist and very progressive-sounding. It spoke of fighting `not only for labour but for the rights of women, the poor, and all minorities’.
Public opinion polls, taken at the time, showed that all this organized activity in oppostion to the onerous government legislation was reflected in growing public opposition to the bills.
Despite the growth of both public opposition and the organized Solidarity coalitions, the government continued to push the bills through the provincial legislature.
At this point a decision was made by the B.C. Federation of labour, and its member unions, in consultation with the entire Solidarity Coalition which included also a massive number of non- labour community-based organizations, to launch a general strike against the repressive bills.
The General Strike
The gameplan for this strike was to withdraw the labour of the province’s organized workforce, in both the public and private sectors, in stages, until all of the repressive bills were withdrawn in the legislature. The role of the non-labour community-based organizations was to provide support on the picket-lines and in building public understanding and support for the strike and removal of the bills.
It is imperative to understand that the community groups – which included women’s organizations, church’s and religious figures, important ethnically-based organizations, and so forth – played a key role at this point in legitimating the strike in the eyes of the public. Due to their participation, and due to the broad progressive agenda of the strike, the walkout could be seen by ordinary people not as a narrow sectoral strike by labour but as a strike on behalf of the interests of the great majority of citizens.
The demand was the removal of all the repressive bills, both those effecting labour directly and those effecting the community groups.
Betrayal by the Labour Movement Leadership
In due course the strike began. The first week was very successful, with effective walkouts and picketing in several public sector areas. At the same time, the right-wing provincial government refused to budge, maintaining that it would push ahead with its bills.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the strike participants and supporters, treachery was being prepared. In a secret meeting of the province’s labour leaders, it was decided to approach Bennett, the premier, with an offer to call off the strike in exchange for an agreement that the government would discuss matters (!) and perhaps withdraw some of the anti-labour and other onerous legislation. Jack Munroe, then head of the provinces biggest union, the B.C. IWA, was dispatched to negotiate with the premier, behind the backs of both the ordinary trade unionists and the community organizations involved in the strike. The two men duly met, and an agreement to end the strike was announced on T.V.
There was not even a pretence of democratic consultation with the hundreds of community organizations, rank-and-file workers, and other sectors which had supported the strike and been instrumental in building the Solidarity Coalition.
Following this announcement, confusion followed by resignation swept through the movement. On the following Monday, the Strike was over. The government had effectively won, not through its own strength or standing with the public, but through the cowardly retreat of the trade union leadership. After using the non-labour community organizations, and the Solidarity movement, to legitimate its opposition to the anti-labour portion of the provincial legislation, the trade union movement leadership fell back on its purely sectoral interests by cutting a deal which would hopefully serve the interests of its own beauracratic leaders and narrowly-defined constituency.
A pretence of consultation between government and the trade union movement took place after the strike. Some concessions to trade unions were made, but the bulk of the government bills, with their negative impact on the community as a whole, went through.
Lessons of The B.C. Solidarity Movement
What the B.C. Solidarity movement showed is the tremendous power which can be generated through a convergence of working class organizations and progressive community groups. It showed also that trade unions can not only use progressive rhetoric, take at times genuinely progressive stands, but are also able to betray what they have espoused.
But the Solidarity movement also showed the darker side of modern trade unionism. It showed that working people need to remember that these organizations are, in the main, not their organizations. While trade union organizations and social democratic party’s may invoke the interests of workers or the poor, they can also betray those interests on behalf of their own narrow sectoral interests. It is therefore essential that workers build their own organizations as a social and political force completely apart from the established unions.
The working class is not limited to industrial workers but includes all those who have nothing to sell but their labour power. It includes all those who own no means of production themselves, and must therefore sell themselves to those possess it. It includes the employed, the unemployed, and the partially employed of all countries. It is a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, male-female, multi-generational, white-collar-blue collar class composed of the immense majority in countries where capitalism has become fully dominant.
Constituting themselves as a separate social and political force is an essential first step before the working class, and the community groups associated with it, can effectively struggle for social, economic, and political rights..
Postscript added twelve years later:
In 1994-1996, the B.C. Federation of labour displayed NO public opposition when the New Democratic Party (NDP), a previously social democratic party with which it is allied, cut 10% from the welfare checks of `single employables’ who already lacked sufficient money for even such rudiments of life as basic food and housing. Nor did it squawk when the NDP premier referred to large numbers of `deadbeats and criminals’ amongst the welfare population.