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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THOUGHTS OF CHAIRMAN JACK

I talked with Big Jack Munro a few days before he died. It was pretty tough going. The big booming voice that had bellowed from the podiums of hundreds of meetings was down to a whisper. His legendary fire was just about spent. But some things had not changed. His endearing, infectious chuckle was still in place, despite the pain of his illness. And, 40 years after I first covered him for the Vancouver Sun, Jack was still calling me Rob.

As I write this, there’s a hard, blowing wind and a majestic full moon over Long Beach, where I am for the weekend. My thoughts on the long life and extraordinary times of Jack Munro are all a-jumble, trying to process the legacy of the most dominant labour leader this once-militant province ever had, and the multitude of different things he did during his wild, 82-year ride through life. (How many remember that Munro went to the Forbidden Kingdom  in 1974 with then Premier Dave Barrett and MacMillan Bloedel CEO Denis Timmis, trying to sell Maoist China on buying B.C. timber?  Crazy.)

I will write more about Jack Munro, and in particular his controversial role that dramatic Sunday night in Kelowna almost exactly 30 years ago, when Bill Bennett, the premier of the province, and Munro, a union man,  met face to face in the premier’s living room to hammer out an end to the very real threat of a general strike. It was as dramatic a moment as it gets, even in B.C., and  arguments still rage today about the pros and cons of their so-called Kelowna Accord.

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But for now, let’s hear from Jack Munro, himself. These observations by Brother Munro are from an interview I did with him just last August for a story on the relatively sad state of the B.C. labour movement. Whatever one’s thoughts on Jack Munro, and he was not “the good guy” on every issue, no one can deny his commitment to the cause of working people, and his genuine sorrow and anger at the decline of union influence. It’s all here.

Take it away, Jack.

MUNRO: Everybody delights in kicking the hell out of the labour movement. It’s having a tough time. Everybody’s struggling. The  world is somewhat upside down. I think we’ve lost some really important values. Too many people have forgotten that it was the labour movement that was able to bring about changes in our society, in our way of life, in our social consciousness.

But we’re no longer headed up, we’re headed down.  You listen to these commentators. Every damn thing that goes wrong, with wages and whatnot, they blame the workers. Cut the workers’ play, cut this, cut that, cut the benefits. If workers get 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.

MUNRO: Society is a helluva lot worse without unions. Absolutely. But I don’t know what the hell’s happened. Maybe unions have been too acquiescent. They don’t get any awards for that. The economy is this and that, so they go a couple of years with no wage increase, or 1 and 2 per cent, and the bosses think that’s just great. So they concentrate even more on keeping wages down. They think, ah, we’ve got ‘em now. They pile on. It’s very frustrating for a guy like me, very frustrating.

MUNRO: Leading a strike is tough. When the IWA went on strike, all the staff went on strike pay, too. So we had the same hardship as the members. It’s emotional. You lie awake at night. You know people are hurting, but you can’t give up. If you give up, it’s going to be worse. You have to keep on.

MUNRO: We’re trying to get more worker-type history into the schools. Right now, there’s nothing teaching kids in school about how the hell we got here. Governments and entrepreneurs encouraged expansion and development. They opened the doors. Workers walked through and did a hell of a job, developing industries and systems and that sort of stuff. But nobody’s being taught that. So with our Labour Heritage Centre we are trying to remind people and society that workers have made an important contribution. If no one knows something, they don’t understand it. If unions don’t come back, society is in big trouble.

Amen, Brother. It’s hard to believe he’s gone.

My old colleague Doug Ward, like myself an ex-labour reporter who covered Jack Munro, has written a good synopsis of his  turbulent career.

And I am left with one last memory. As I hung up the phone this week from my final conversation with the big guy, Jack Munro made sure to remind me: “It’s been a good life, Rob.”

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CHUCK STRAHL SURPRISES AT THE TRC

It’s one of the delights of this funny old world when people show a side of themselves you least expect. A good example took place during Saturday’s closing ceremonies of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s unforgettable four days in Vancouver. The man who surprised was none other than Chuck Strahl.

Yes, that Chuck Strahl, long-time MP for the right-wing Reform Party, Canadian Alliance and Conservative Party of Canada.

The same Chuck Strahl who supported his government’s killing of the Kelowna Accord that had promised billions of dollars in aid to the country’s aboriginal population.

IMG_0571And, during his three years as Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs, Canada was one of only four countries to vote against the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, while treaty negotiations in B.C. ground to a virtual standstill.

On the plus side, the government’s profound apology to residential school survivors and settlement of their class-action lawsuit occurred while Mr. Strahl was still at the helm of Indian Affairs, but few would suggest the Harper government he served was in any way a beacon of empathy for native rights. Quite the contrary.

So, when he was sworn in as an Honorary Witness to the intensely painful and emotional testimony of the scarred survivors of native residential schools, there must have been more than a few raised eyebrows.

What would he say at the end of it all? The usual political patter that what went on was wrong and must never happen again? Sure, but would he say more?

You bet.

Freed from the restraints of toeing the party line, now that he is no longer an MP, Mr. Strahl rose to the occasion.

Ignoring a scattering of boos as he approached the podium, he talked about the difference between aboriginal people and government.

“Aboriginal people talk about honour, prayer, healing, reconciliation, forgiveness and respect. Governments talk about regulations, legislation, enforcement, bylaws,” Mr. Strahl said. “Aboriginal people talk about values. Governments talk about interests.”

It was clear which approach he thought superior.

He told survivors and the native community: “I hope you continue to talk about things of the heart, things that matter, when so many of us have stopped talking about that. It’s a mighty powerful thing.”

Finally, Mr. Strahl disclosed that he had picked up a lot of material on what took place at residential schools, as he went through the many powerful displays on the PNE grounds.

He said he would be giving the material to his grand-daughters, who are being home-schooled. “I did that so they can understand what happened. That should happen for all school age children in Canada,” he said.

There were no boos when Mr. Strahl sat down.