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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AN ODDBALL LOOK BACK AT BILL BENNETT

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For some reason, Bill Bennett seemed to like me. In the few times we encountered each other, we got along. Goodness knows why, since, as a labour reporter, I had little time for the wealth of anti-labour legislation that came down the legislative pipe during Bennett’s 11 years as premier, topped by his outlandish, 26-bill “restraint” package in 1983. It went far beyond “austerity”. One of the bills gave his government the right to fire public sector workers without cause and lay them off without regard to seniority. Among the first to be shown the door was BCGEU vice-president Diane Woods. Nor was that all.

On that single unforgettable day, the government also wiped out the Human Rights Commission (employees fired on the spot), gave landlords the right to evict tenants without cause, abolished rent controls, severely curtailed employment standards, tightened government control over school boards, community colleges and course content, weakened public scrutiny of Crown corporations, slashed social spending, and announced the layoffs of hundreds of government employees. It was a neo-con revolution of the right, hailed by the Fraser Institute and the Milton Friedman folks in Chicago. “Black Thursday” led to the most concerted protest fightback in the history of B.C., bringing the province to the verge of an all-out general strike. Er…where was I…? Oh yes, Bill Bennett and me.

As I said, all my dealings with Bennett the Younger were cordial, even friendly. I particularly remember one strange Friday night in the good old days when there were labour reporters. I was working the night labour beat at the Vancouver Sun, looking forward to a drink later on at the Press Club across the street. Out of nowhere, the “labour desk” got a call from one of Bennett’s aides, saying the Premier would like to have dinner with me. But of course. Why wouldn’t he? So out I headed on that dark and stormy night to a Japanese restaurant in deepest Richmond.

And there he was, leader of all the people, dining out with a few of his cronies. It was such a simpler time. Turned out the Premier wanted to talk to me about what he intended to do to ensure there would be no repeat of a bitter ferries strike that had just convulsed the province. His plan involved curbing the powers of the quite wonderful Labour Relations Board established under the NDP, and broadening the definition of essential services.

We had a pleasant conversation. I drank green tea and took notes. Bennett didn’t seem to mind my defense of the LRB and its brilliant chairman, Paul Weiler. Nor did he seem perturbed when I pointed to a strike-ending document authored by Mr. Weiler that, among other things, ruled out another aspect of Bennett’s agenda: potential prosecution of ferry workers for defying a back-to-work order.

It was actually kind of odd, as I realized little old labour reporter me knew more about the ins and outs of the ferry dispute than the premier of the province. But never mind. When I got back to the office, I had a big scoop that was splashed all over the front page of the Saturday Sun.

Nor was that the end of this gripping, personal saga. A few days later, Bill Bennett had to stand up in the legislature and acknowledge that he may have misled the House, after an article by that same little old labour reporter me contradicted something he had said. It’s all a bit complicated and picayune, but here is my shiny Bill Bennett moment.

First, Hansard from Oct 19, 1977:

MRS. E.E. DAILLY (Burnaby North): To the Premier. Was the Premier aware of the Weiler document the evening before he went on public television?

HON. MR. BENNETT: No.

COCKE: Rod Mickleburgh says he showed it to you the night before and you talked to him about it the night before.

 DEPUTY SPEAKER: Order, please.

And then, on Oct. 20:

HON. W.R. BENNETT (Premier): Mr. Speaker, I rise on a point of clarification…to clarify an answer made in question period yesterday.

DEPUTY SPEAKER: Please proceed.

HON. MR. BENNETT: Mr. Speaker, I must say that in answer to a question from the member for Burnaby North (Mrs. Dailly) yesterday, in the shortness of my answer I may have inadvertently misled the House. The question was: was I aware of the LRB document? The answer would have to be yes, but I had not read the contents. That was the way I had understood the question. But I would point out that I did attend in dinner with Mr. Mickleburgh, who was there to receive a statement in advance of my press conference the following morning, and he has suggested that he mentioned the document during the dinner. While I cannot recall the contents of what he said, it must be said that I was aware that the Labour Relations Board did have a document. For that the answer would be “yes.” Had I read it and did I know the contents? The answer would be “no” at that time.

For the only time in my mediocre career, the score stood: Mickleburgh 1 Premier of British Columbia 0.

We encountered each other a few times after that, all private, all rather enjoyable. He never mentioned my calling him to account. Unlike many other politicians, Bill Bennett, frequently a target of intense media criticism, never held a grudge against reporters. Former Province legislative columnist Allen Garr, who wrote a hard-hitting book on Bennett called Tough Guy and was never easy on him in his columns, said he ran into the former premier a few years ago and was greeted with a genial ‘hello”, warm handshake and heartfelt pleasantries. Mind you, Bill Bennett shook hands with anybody….Image 11

As some have mentioned, Bennett was also known for his wit, though it was almost always at the expense of others and often somewhat mean. He once referred to NDP transportation critic James Lorimer, who favoured light rail over Skytrain, as “a streetcar named retire”. During a controversy that had erupted over vacant space in government office buildings under the Barrett government, he ended a corridor confrontation with Public Works Minister Bill Hartley, by saying the minister should have a sign on his forehead proclaiming “This Space for Rent”. I have other examples in the same vein, including a particularly good zinger on Bill Vander Zalm, whom he loathed, but you get the picture. Given that the NDP used to taunt him as “Daddy’s Boy”, perhaps he can be forgiven if they seem a bit harsh. (Bob Williams was the most persistent of the “Daddy’s Boy” taunters, until Bennett shot back, unfortunately: “At least I have a father…”)

Bennett really was a “tough guy” of the back alley variety. He gave no quarter. He played to win. Not an instinctive politician, he had an unerring sense for weakness. When union leader Jack Munro came to his house in Kelowna that infamous Sunday night in November, 1983, with an escalation of labour’s general strike on the table, Bennett quickly realized the unions wanted out of it more than he did. He could get a deal by offering almost nothing. Essentially, Bennett called their bluff, and the unions folded like a sack of potatoes. (Often forgotten is that Bennett did budge on the trade union issues that launched the whole Solidarity movement, but that happened before the ill-fated, so-called “Kelowna Accord”. One of the anti-union bills was dropped and the other never seriously applied. The layoffs proceeded, but they did so according to seniority, under employees’ union contracts. Diane Woods got her job back.)

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Even his family’s paid obituary in the newspaper referred to Bill Bennett’s competitive fire, which hardly diminished as he grew older. At 68, nearly 14 years after he resigned and slipped back to a secluded, private life in Kelowna, Bennett was summoned to testify at the inquiry into the legendary Bingogate scandal. The inquiry was called to look into the illegal redirection of charity bingo funds by NDP stalwart and former cabinet minister, Dave Stupich.

Asked about a mysterious memo that suggested Bennett somehow called off an investigation into Stupich’s charity bingos, the former premier denied even knowing about the matter. “Quite frankly, rest assured I never went out of my way to save Dave Stupich from himself,” he asserted, much to the merriment of those attending.

Later in his testimony, the great “Scotch and cornflakes” saga came up. Stupich had intimated in a letter to his constituents that Bennett was a heavy drinker, known to pour a bit of Scotch on his morning cornflakes. When Stupich refused to retract, Bennett sued. Stupich, along with his cohort, former Attorney-General Alex Macdonald, thought there was great political sport to be made, and fought the matter in court. Bennett, of course, didn’t fool around. He hired the best libel lawyer in the province, and was awarded $10,000, a hefty sum in those days. “Mr. Stupich didn’t plead truth. He tried to play political. I can only suggest he either got poor legal advice, or no legal advice,” the 68-year old Bennett told the inquiry.

He paused, then added, evoking more loud laughter: “For the record, his lawyer was Alex Macdonald.”

Old habits died hard.

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(The Godfather passes the torch in the vineyards of Kelowna.)

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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