Thoughts On the Illegal British Columbia Teachers Strike
Tuesday, October 11, 2005
by Sam Gamgee
Picket lines went up at schools across the province on Friday, as the 42,000 members of the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) kicked-off an illegal strike in defiance of the BC Liberal government’s Bill 12, the legislation that extends the existing contract between teachers and their employers until the end of June. Prior to the introduction of Bill 12, teachers had voted to strike for a wage increase, smaller class sizes, and improved conditions for both teachers and students. Some 25,000 school support workers from the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) are respecting teachers’ picket lines and often joining the lines in solidarity.
The existing contract was imposed on the BCTF by the Liberal government in 2002 through legislation that removed limits on class sizes. It also included a 2.5%-per-year salary increase over three years, but the government did not fund this, and the employers association deferred the cost by axing about 2,600 teaching positions. Teachers held a one-day illegal strike and protest against the legislation in 2002, but still received pay from the employers association, who apparently saw the limited strike as a way for teachers to “blow off steam”, providing for the continued efficient functioning of the engine of the education system.
This time around, Bill 12 was introduced with the intention of preventing a legal teachers strike. The Labour Relations Board, which was established by the New Democratic Party (NDP) government in the 1970s, has ordered teachers to return to their classrooms. The BC Supreme Court has ruled that the teachers are in contempt-of-court. The BCTF could be hit with massive fines and its president could be thrown in jail.
For days now, Liberal Labour Minister Mike de Jong and premier Gordon Campbell have been blathering incessantly about the bad example teachers are setting for their students by taking illegal action. “In a society built around the rule of law, you don’t get to pick and choose because if that’s how we’re going to run this thing then we’re one step away from anarchy,” said de Jong.
NDP leader Carole James has simply added her voice to the government’s chorus on the illegality of the strike.
For the government, the ‘rule of law’ is that the ruling class makes the law, and this perspective does not depend on party affiliation. It was an NDP government that legislated CUPE school support staff back to work in April of 2000. In response, the BC Federation of Labour (BCFed) and CUPE cried outrage and publicly questioned their affiliation with the NDP. Jim Sinclair, president of the BCFed, proclaimed that the NDP could not count on labour support in the spring of 2001 provincial election. “Some people may just not go to the polling places,” he said.
Of course, when that election came along, the NDP was almost eliminated from the legislature, securing only two seats. The Liberals then began to enact their highly unpopular program of political and economic restructuring which attacked everyone but the employer class of the province. Government employees were laid-off, union contracts were shredded, the six-dollar training wage was implemented, welfare was slashed, and a racist propaganda ‘referendum’ on treaties with Native band councils was held. In December of 2003, the Liberals ordered striking ferry workers back to their jobs. In April of 2004, Liberal legislation made a Hospital Employees Union (HEU) strike illegal. Without the support of rank-and-file workers, BCFed and HEU bureaucrats signed a deal with the Liberals that slashed HEU members’ wages and did nothing to stop the privatization of health care by multinational corporations. The BCFed self-policed their symbolic protests during the Liberals’ first term, while collaborating with the government’s cops, and counseled us to merely vote the NDP back into power rather than take economic action, such as the general strike that could have taken place in May of 2004. And after all that, the BCFed couldn’t even get the NDP elected.
Are we supposed to believe that the endless stream of strike-breaking legislation from both the dominant parties, and its support by the courts, are mere coincidence? Or do politicians and the apparatus of government serve the interests of the corporate class to which politicians belong?
What are slaves if not people who lack the freedom to refuse to work for their masters?
Why should anyone trust the BCFed, given their collaboration with the Liberals and with the Social Credit Party under a similar ruling class offensive back in 1983?
Many teachers and their supporters on the picket lines want a general strike, as they understand that such an action could beat back the government’s legislation. And where there’s a will there’s a way. Direct action and solidarity only require self-organization, communication, determination, and creativity. And anyone can put these into practice with a little effort. The economy can be struck at the points of production, distribution and consumption through walk-outs, occupations, blockades, sabotage, and the free re-allocation of goods and services.
Self-organization is the only alternative to the cynical manipulations of politicians and union bureaucrats, which define politics itself. You can’t ask permission to be free, or delegate your freedom to an official representative. Direct action, and solidarity that stretches beyond the confines of the unions, are weapons in the struggle against the bosses of this world. It’s here that we find an interesting question: ‘In which ways can we combine our creativity in the conflict with our class enemy?’