SOLIDARITY FOREVER?

Thirty-three years ago, the newly-relected Social Credit government of Bill Bennett brought down the most dramatic, yay outlandish, budget and “restraint” package in B.C. history. What happened next is detailed here in an essay I wrote a year or so ago.

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On July 7, 1983, Bill Bennett and his Social Credit government, freshly elected to a third successive term in office, unleashed a revolution in British Columbia. This was a revolution from the right. Fueled by the radical conservatism of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher and Milton Friedman’s economic neo-liberalism, the Socreds took aim at all those elements in society they had never liked. With no advance notice, a total of 26 repressive bills came down the chute in a single day, along with a harsh government restraint budget that dramatically slashed social spending. Rent controls were abolished. Landlords were given the right to evict tenants without cause. The Human Rights Commission was shut down, its workers fired on the spot. The Employment Standards Branch was killed off. Scrutiny of Crown corporations was wound up, while the government tightened its grip over local school board budgets and community colleges, including course content. And on and on.

The worst of the onslaught focused on workers and unions in the public sector. Under Bill 2, they lost the right to negotiate almost anything except wages and benefits, even as wage controls were extended indefinitely. Bill 3, designed to pave the way for a wave of firings, wiped out job security and, incredibly, gave all public sector authorities the power to terminate workers without cause, regardless of seniority. (The first list of government employees to be fired included the names of B.C. Government Employees Union executive members John Shields and Diane Woods.) This was, indeed, “Black Thursday”.

The legislative barrage came at a dire time for the labour movement, already weakened by yet another NDP defeat at the polls and the sudden death earlier that year of Jim Kinnaird, the tough, able Scot who had headed the B.C. Federation of Labour since 1976. Kinnaird’s stopgap successor was Art Kube, a portly, relatively unknown, Canadian Labour Congress staffer with little real union experience.

Yet the fightback was immediate and intense. In fact, there has never been anything quite like the concerted Operation Solidarity protest that swept the province through four turbulent months during the summer and fall of 1983. The popular, union-led uprising against Premier Bennett’s Restraint Program brought B.C. to the verge of a general strike, involving hundreds of thousands public sector workers, with B.C.’s powerful private sector unions waiting to join in the moment anyone was punished for walking off the job. Resistance was further powered by an unprecedented coalition between the labour movement and community advocacy groups that had seen so many of their own rights trampled. Kube, his belief system forged in the social democracy of his native Austria, was to prove an adept leader and strategist, who steered this unlikely coalition until the wheels fell off at the very end.

George Hewison of the Fishermen’s Union was first off the mark. He called a meeting. Instead of the usual suspects, more than a hundred people showed up. They decided to hold a demonstration. Two weeks later, 20,000 people marched across the Georgia Viaduct. The rally featured IWA leader Jack Munro’s enduring observation on whether the numerous protest signs referring to “fascism” went too far. “If it looks like a duck, and it walks like a duck, then it’s probably a goddamned duck!” he thundered. The crowd roared back.

Kube soon coordinated union action, bringing Fed affiliates and their bitter, independent Canadian union rivals together for the first time, under the banner of the astutely-named Operation Solidarity.

Social activists also threw themselves into the struggle. A myriad opposition groups sprang up. One left-wing lawyer complained his practice was going to seed. “All I do is go to meetings.” Kube harnessed this activism into a separate Solidarity Coalition, hired several organizers, funded the rambunctious Solidarity Times newspaper, and convinced the Coalition they were equal partners with the protest’s potent trade union arm.

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Demonstrations and wildcat strikes, including a lengthy occupation of the Tranquille mental health facility in Kamloops, soon spread throughout the province. Twenty-five thousand swarmed the lawn of the legislature. Elsewhere, even in Social Credit strongholds, protestors rallied in the hundreds and thousands. But nothing topped the day tens of thousands public sector workers booked off and crammed every nook and cranny of Vancouver’s Empire Stadium. Just when it seemed the old stadium was completely jammed, in marched hundreds of uniformed firefighters, led by their famed marching band. It was a chilling, emotional moment that no one who was there would ever forget. Hope and optimism were in the air.

But Bill Bennett refused to buckle, deriding protestors as losers re-fighting the last election. Despite heroic, marathon efforts by NDP MLAs to stall the legislation, one by one the bills were pushed through.

Solidarity leaders gambled on one more demonstration, this one in mid-October, organized by the Coalition. The turnout stunned those on both sides of the battle. An estimated 80,000 demonstrators thronged the downtown streets of Vancouver. It remains the biggest protest in the city’s long, stormy history. It was time to move to the picket line. Solidarity hatched a war plan, calling for a series of escalating public sector walkouts, culminating in an all-out general strike.

Two weeks after the huge October protest, 40,000 members of the BCGEU walked off the job – legally – while their negotiators demanded the turfing of Bill 2 and an exemption from Bill 3. A week later, thousands of public school teachers and other education workers defied the law and hit the bricks on an illegal strike, seeking similar job protection. Municipal employees and the province’s critical ferry workers were next in line, set to strike on Monday, Nov. 14.

Finally, the government got nervous. They began to talk seriously about issues that had inflamed B.C. for months. Norman Spector, Bennett’s right hand man, parachuted into round-the-clock bargaining with the BCGEU at the B.C. Labour Relations Board. Spector also met secretly with B.C. Federation of Labour heavyweights Jack Munro and Mike Kramer.

The end came in a series of dramatic events that concluded less than 12 hours before the threatened ferry workers’ strike. The BCGEU won a deal containing wage increases, the death of Bill 2 and a Bill 3 exemption that recognized layoffs by seniority. It was a victory of sorts, and BCGEU negotiators brought out the champagne at their union headquarters in Burnaby. It was now a union show. The Solidarity Coalition and its causes, which had been such a part of the four-month protest, were shunted to the sidelines. “How can they celebrate when they’re selling out human rights?” lamented one Coalition leader, bitterly.

But before the picket lines came down, Operation Solidarity still wanted a pact with Bill Bennett to confirm their limited gains. With Kube home sick, Jack Munro flew to Kelowna to “negotiate” with the Premier. Sensing Solidarity’s desperation, however, Bennett refused to make any public statement committing the government to anything. Over the phone, Kube told Munro to “get the hell out of there”. Munro stayed. With the unanimous support of Federation executive members back in Vancouver, he soon stepped onto Bennett’s darkened porch and announced an end to Solidarity’s magnificent movement. Not with a bang, but a whimper.

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(Vancouver Sun photo)

Privately, the government agreed to Bill 3 exemptions throughout the public sector, keeping money saved by the teachers’ walkout in the education system, and consultation on a few social matters. Yet this seemed a pittance to those who had had such high hopes for so many months. Instead of a victory celebration, there was bitterness and confusion. People felt betrayed. Operation Sellout buttons became popular. Jack Munro was vilified, both inside and outside the trade union movement. Perhaps it was unrealistic to expect union members to strike and sacrifice their own pay cheques for non-monetary, non-union social issues. But this was never articulated to the Solidarity Coalition, which was left out in the rain by the final agreement.

In the cold light of dawn, however, there were still significant achievements to be noted. Nowhere in Canada outside Quebec had a strong, militant labour movement been able to stop a government’s anti-union agenda in its tracks. In the end, after all its bluster, Social Credit completely capitulated on Bills 2 and 3. That clear triumph is often forgotten amid all the unhappiness over the so-called Kelowna Accord. Bennett, himself, was heavily damaged politically. He chose not to run again. The extent of the historic fightback also dampened public enthusiasm for his right-wing, neo-con Restraint Program, few elements of which survive today. It also ensured Bennet would never be hailed a conservative folk hero, except perhaps by the Fraser Institute, as were Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. For all of that, we can thank Operation Solidarity. And the Solidarity Coalition.

(and here’s what I wrote for the Globe and Mail on the 25th anniversary of the Kelowna Accord http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/back-from-the-brink-25-years-later/article20389444/)

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A LAST FAREWELL FOR BIG JACK MUNRO

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Hundreds turned out on a brilliant sunny Saturday afternoon to say a final farewell to Jack Munro, who died last November, after as full an 82-year life as could be imagined.

I’ve already written a lot about Big Jack, but I believe it’s merited. (Here’s my obituary on Munro.) When was the last time a leader of a trade union was as prominent in this province as Munro was for 30 years? It was unheard of even then, when labour mattered, and that prominence is highly unlikely to be repeated for any current or future labour leader. As Vancouver Sun photographer Steve Bosch acutely observed, after hearing excerpts of some fiery Munro speeches that were replayed at the memorial: “We may be the last generation to hear that kind of talk.” Heck, there aren’t even any labour reporters in the mainstream media to celebrate big time union leaders, even if there were any. The peril of this dearth of expertise was amply illustrated by one newspaper account of Munro’s memorial, which said the gathering attracted “union brass and the working class”, as if they were separate categories.

In the case of Jack Munro, the clichés fit. He really was larger than life and one of a kind, towering over other personalities. Yes, many things about him were controversial. He was no angel. He could be a bully, particularly in the days when he was drinking. And his relatively moderate approach to many issues attracted criticism from activists and the so-called “left”. He believed in deal-making over confrontation. That’s one reason he was respected by many on the company side of the ledger. “Hey, a union leader we can do business with…”

But there was never any doubt which side Munro was on. He represented workers. To his dying day, he believed in the virtues of trade unionism and the integral role they play in society. “He made us proud, proud to be workers, and proud to have him as our leader,” said Harvey Arcand, who used to head the IWA’s Williams Lake local.

Munro’s final years were spent spearheading efforts by the Labour Heritage Centre to collect and promote union and worker history as a way of ensuring that their contribution to building British Columbia would not be forgotten, amid all the celebration of politicians and corporate pioneers. After more than half a century in the labour movement, it was hardly something he needed to do. But he never lost his fire in the belly for the importance of trade unions to the province’s economic and social justice fabric.

Saturday proved a good send-off, attracting a diverse crowd, including ex-premiers, current politicians, business representatives and  a wide-cross section of the labour movement, from leaders to the rank-and-file. And of course, there were yet more stories about a guy who was more colourful than a Ted Harris paint store. I never tire of them.

Fighting back tears during his eulogy to the man who mentored him, Ken Georgetti told of a time Munro was down south in the United States during an IWA organizing drive. As he sat in a small town café for a bite to eat, Munro heard the owner lay a verbal licking on one of his employees. “The employer was white, the employee was black, and Jack saw red.” He stood up, all 6’5”, 250 pounds of him, and demanded the owner apologize. When he resisted, Munro tossed him out and locked the door, until he complied. “Jack reminded us the world can be a better place, if we dedicate ourselves to the fight,” said Georgetti.

Harvey Arcand recalled a case before BC Labour Relations Board chairman Don Munroe (note the ‘e’). Jack Munro started berating a company witness from the back row, prompting Don Munro to ask for a little decorum. “What the hell do you know about decorum?” the IWA president hollered back. “You don’t even know how to spell Munro!”

Angela Schira, former secretary-treasurer of the B.C. Federation of Labour, remembered sitting beside Munro during a speech at a Fed convention by the eloquent Stephen Lewis. The blunt-speaking Munro was not impressed by Lewis’s rich vocabulary. “Why do we have to have a speaker that you need a dictionary to understand?” he wondered out loud.

Another time, Schira related, Munro was chairing a Fed convention, as a speaker on Mike Four droned on, reading from what appeared to be a leftist tract. When Munro reminded him his allotted time was nearly up, the speaker complained that the interruption caused him to lose his place. “I’ll help you out,” said Munro, from the podium. “I recognize the brother on Mike Five.”

In addition to the speeches, there was a good video of Big Jack’s life, with some wonderful examples of Munro in full god-damn verbal flight. Ah, the memories. The video ended with the chorus of John Lennon’s terrific, albeit bitter, song. “A working class hero is something to be.”

At the conclusion of the memorial, emcee Stephen Hunt of the Steelworkers, which absorbed the IWA in 2004, announced that the union’s building would now be known as the Jack Munro Building. Well done.

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A BIT MORE ON THE LATE JACK MUNRO

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Writing an obituary on Jack Munro isn’t easy. For one thing, it’s hard to get it out of your head that such a dominant, larger-than-life, one-of-a-kind character has really left us. Secondly, of course, as Jack might have said, there’s just too much goddamned material. 1,800 words really can’t do justice to someone who presided over the news in this province for 30 years, when labour mattered.

My effort for the Globe and Mail is here. There was much that didn’t make the cut. Here are a couple of anecdotes from the good old days.

At the exceedingly bitter B.C. Federation of Labour convention in 1976, forces headed by Munro were trying to unseat the incumbent Fed leadership, under secretary-treasurer Len Guy and president George Johnston. On the convention floor, Munro raised a point of order, complaining that he was being forced to wait so long for his turn to speak that he might have to take a piss right there. Johnston, who was chairing the convention, replied: “Piss away, brother Munro. Piss away.” Even Munro had to laugh.

One of Munro’s more memorable lines came at an early public protest by Operation Solidarity, where he was a featured speaker.  He noted a lot of signs used words such as  ‘jackboots’ and ‘fascism’ to describe Social Credit’s harsh restraint legislation, which, among many elements, allowed public sector employees to be fired without cause, with no regard for job security or seniority. Munro said he wouldn’t necessarily use a word like ‘fascist’ to describe the legislation, then added, in his legendary, bellowing voice: “But if it walks like a duck, and it talks like a duck, then it’s probably a duck, goddammit!”

There was also his still-remembered birthday tribute to then Prime Minister Trudeau. Munro had all the delegates at an IWA convention stand and sing ‘happy birthday’ to the PM, each with a single finger raised in salute.

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And some quotes left on the cutting room floor:

Rob Mingay, who worked in communications for the IWA: “Jack understood the theatre of negotiations. He knew how to get a deal better than anyone I’ve ever seen.”

Deborrah Munro: “Jack’s idea of camping was no remote control for the TV….There was never a dull moment around Jack, but he had a sensitive side that not many people knew about. He could tell stories. We’d go on these long drives, and he’d make up a story. It would go on for two weeks. Each morning, he’d continue where he left off the day before. He might have been a writer, but he didn’t like sitting down and doing the work.”

Operation Solidarity leader Art Kube: “There’s no question he’s the last of a vanishing breed….I didn’t like the Kelowna Accord, but I knew what we were up against. We had 89 injunctions filed against us. The BCGEU had settled, and they wanted the general strike settled, too…But I told Jack in Kelowna to get the hell out of there and we’ll declare victory. That’s what we should have done….There’s the impression that Jack negotiated the Kelowna Accord, which is total nonsense. There should not be any blame attached to Jack for Kelowna.”

Tom Tevlin, who was president of the now defunct BC Forest Alliance: “He got a lot of flak, but a little bit of flak never bothered Jack Munro.”

CLC president Ken Georgetti: “When it came to negotiations, I’m in Jack’s camp. You have to have a relationship with the people you make deals with. You don’t have to have Christmas dinner with them, but you have to have a relationship.”

Keith Bennett, Munro’s chief adversary on the company side of the bargaining table: “We did things that neither his membership nor my membership approved of, but we sure solved a lot of problems….If everybody could have the fights we had, and come away respecting each other and being each other’s friend, the world might be a lot better off.”

Industrial relations expert Mark Thompson: “He was close to the workers. He looked like one. He talked like one. You never saw him in a tuxedo or anything like that. He was a tough guy. He didn’t back down. He was a real bread-and-butter trade unionist.”

UnknownAnd Jack, himself, just before Labour Day: “The labour movement is having a tough time. Everybody’s struggling. We’ve lost some really important values. Workers are such an important part of our society, our way of life, social consciousness, social change. Too many people have forgotten that. We’re not headed up, we’re headed down.

“A lot of these commentators, every damned thing that goes wrong, they blame the workers. Cut the workers pay, cut this, cut that, cut the benefits. If workers got money, they spend it. They buy things. They keep our economy going.  And to drive the bloody people that keep it going down to the bottom is absolute insanity.”

On Jack Munro’s last night, Deborrah had the Canucks game on, as the big fella drifted in and out of consciousness. He missed the home team blowing another third period lead. When she told him what happened, Munro whispered: “Oh, those bloody Canucks.” They were his final words.

(Black and white photos courtesy of Pacific Tribune archives.)

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BANGLADESH AND THE BAY

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Our fair city is more than 11,000 kilometres from poor, benighted Bangladesh. But Monday, the teeming flood plain came to the doorstep of The Bay in the heart of downtown Vancouver, through the glass doors and up the escalator to the second floor.

There, close to a hundred union protesters gathered in front of the store’s swank, high-priced merchandise, serenading shoppers, mannequins and suddenly-invisible Bay managers with chants of “Shame” and “Sign the Accord”.

Their ire was directed at far-away Bangladesh, and Western retail chains like The Bay, who peddle clothing items produced  by impoverished, poorly-paid, Bangladeshi textile workers toiling in grim, frequently dangerous factories.

The Accord protesters demanded that The Bay sign is far from a radical document. It merely commits signatories to ensure enforcement of a safe working environment for employees who work in those notorious sweatshops on our shopping behalf.

The situation has taken on pressing urgency since the calamitous collapse earlier this year of the eight-story Rana Plaza building, which killed more than 1,100 textile workers. Many had wanted to stay away that day, after noticing ominous cracks in the walls. However, they were threatened with being fired or losing pay by unscrupulous bosses, who assured them the building was safe. At least one Canadian retailer was among those with contracts for garments from workplaces in the Rana Plaza.

Since then, more than a hundred retailers across Europe and North  America have signed the legally-binding Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. On behalf of its Joe Fresh clothing line, Loblaws has signed. The Bay hasn’t. Instead, The Bay, along with Walmart, Canadian Tire and others, have opted for a lesser safety agreement that does not provide for independent, on-site, factory inspections.

In the midst of demonstrators at The Bay was 36-year old Kalpona Akter. She became a textile worker at the age of 12, was fired four years later for trying to organize a union, and today heads the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity, based in Dhaka.

ImageWith a thick, black, woolen scarf wrapped around her neck to fend off Vancouver’s un-Asian chill, Akter reminded protesters of the Rana Plaza tragedy, with many brandishing signs depicting distressing photos of the dead. “This was industrial murder,” she declared. “And why? Because greedy corporations are not interested in seeing happy worker faces. They want to see happy profit sheets.”

The post-collapse reaction of most Canadian retailers doing business in Bangladesh has not been encouraging. While there is now grudging recognition something needs to be done about the miserable working conditions that provide our fancy duds, the general corporate response has been to do as little as one can publicly get away with.

Lets face it. Competition in the retail trade is fierce. The cheaper one can get products from desperate countries like Bangladesh, the better. For millions of mindless, brand-obsessed shoppers, price is key. Who cares what it takes to land those snazzy clothes on store hangers? How many Black Friday shoppers will give it a moment’s thought? Retailers may well think: we can’t afford to have a conscience. Why should we sign the Accord, if my competitor isn’t signing?

But surely, some executives somewhere must also be capable of thinking: if the cost of doing business involves the kind of textile-production atrocities we see in Bangladesh, is that production we want to be part of? Surveys have shown Canadians are willing to pay more for garments produced by workers with rights in a safe environment. Yes, easy to answer a poll question, but it’s hard to imagine consumers not responding to a solid advertising campaign extolling a retail chain’s social responsibility.

It’s certainly fair to argue, as Akter did on Monday, that the 1,129 workers who perished at Rana Plaza would be alive today, if the Accord had been in place at their factories. “Those were human beings who died, and the goods they were working on were made for us,” fired-up B.C. Federation of Labour president Jim Sinclair reminded the protest rally. “Do Canadians and consumers want their blood on their clothes? I don’t think so.”

For the moment, there are no calls for a boycott of The Bay. Rather, Canadians are being urged to put their names to a petition urging the company to sign the Accord. Seems like the least people can do. They can also send personal messages to Bay biggies, telling them to do the right thing.

A shining example is right before them. H&M, the Swedish-based second-largest clothing retailer in the world, pledged this week to guarantee workers producing its garments at factories in Bangladesh and Cambodia are paid “a living wage”.  If H&M, why not others?

As she talked to the media on The Bay’s glitzy second floor, Kalpona Akter noticed she was standing in front of a blouse priced at $350. “It would take a worker back in Bangladesh six months to earn that much money. It’s shocking,” Akter said.