Perspective on the BC Ferry Strike (2003)

Perspective on the BC Ferry Strike

by Concerned Citizen
December 13, 2003

For a period of a few days the people of BC witnessed something unusual: a union standing up to its corporate employer, the Liberal government, and the legal bureaucracy designed to limit workers’ struggle.

The ferry workers began limited strike action on December 7, cutting food service and overtime, to begin their fight against wage cuts. On December 10, they shut down the ferries in response to an attempt by the government to impose a 80-day “cooling off period”. The strike was declared “illegal” the next day, December 11, but ferry workers defied the back-to-work order. Workers from other unions and non-union supporters came out to picket lines at ferry docks and a demonstration was held outside the BC Ferry Corporation headquarters in Victoria. After rallying at the site for some time and shouting down scab replacement workers, the protesters marched to the provincial legislature chanting “general strike”.

Ferry workers at a number of picket lines vowed that they were willing to go all the way, and even be arrested by police.

The next day, December 12, the union “leaders” agreed to binding arbitration and called off the strike. While some workers appeared to be glad to see the end of the strike, many people felt that the struggle had been defused from above at a crucial juncture. Many more people had prepared to travel to the picket lines to support the striking workers, taking into account the possibility of the police intervening, only to hear that the strike had suddenly ended. There was a growing call for the strike to generalize: from supporters, the already striking IWA forest workers, and from ferry workers themselves. Many were excited by the new possibilities that the ferry workers’ determination had opened up and wanted to help to widen the struggle.

But when it came down to it, the union leaders did what union leaders do: they compromised with the corporation, and put the breaks on the strike. As managers of the workforce, this is the normal function of union bosses.

Although many put emphasis on the “militancy” of the BC Ferry workers union leadership, it would be a mistake to ignore the push from the rank-and-file that would have prompted the leaders to appear as such.

In my view, it would have been quite possible for the ferry workers and their supporters to open up another front in this particular class struggle by organizing independently of the union bureaucracy. The self-organization of the rank-and-file workers and their supporters could have lead to direct actions which may have forced the ferry corporation’s hand, or at least opened up space for the social struggle to spread to other sectors of the economy.

One option that remains open to ferry workers is the “good work” strike, a tactic which is particularly effective in the service sector. A good work strike would mean that the workers would remain on the job but not charge customers for fare. This would not only damage the financial interests of the employer, but would also build links of social solidarity with passengers.

The strike caused massive disruption to the BC economy and provoked the anger of the business community and Gordon Campbell himself. This clearly shows the effectiveness of economically disruptive action as opposed to symbolic protest. The limitations that the legal system and the union adminstration put on the self-activity of workers was made more obvious in the course of the strike. Although the government promotes bargaining over direct action, it is difficult to undertand where workers’ leverage would come from if any kind of effective economic action is “illegal”. Given that negotiation inevitably benefits the interests of the corporation (which is in a position of power) and the union bosses, but leaves the workers in the lurch and always means the end of the struggle, a critical look at bargaining as a tactic is necessary.

I offer this perspective with the intention of disturbing the still waters of BC by encourging all working and unemployed people to organize themselves in a struggle against our common enemy – the BC Liberal government, and the wealthy corporations who support the government while exploiting the people and the land.

Responses, discussion and criticism are welcome.

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