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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RACHEL NOTLEY, DAVE BARRETT AND HISTORY

ndp-leader-rachel-notley-wins-alberta-election I wasn’t there, but I bet a lot of tears were shed by Alberta NDP oldtimers last night at the party’s giddy, raucous ‘n’ rollin’  victory celebration in Edmonton. That was certainly the order of the evening on a similar dragon-slaying night long ago, out here in British Columbia. On Aug. 30, 1972, Dave Barrett, the 41-year old son of an East Vancouver fruit pedlar, led “the socialist hordes” inside the province’s gates for the first time, after nearly 40 years of repeated failure. Among the hysterical crowd greeting a triumphant Barrett at the Coquitlam Arena (it was a different time…) was veteran union official Rudy Krickan, who’d worked for the party since the 1930’s. His eyes moistening, Krickan told a reporter: “This is the greatest night of my life.” Barrett’s mother Rose, who put young Dave on a Spanish Civil War float in the late 1930’s, hugged her son with tears streaming down her face. 8378182 I’m sure there were similar moments in Edmonton, as Rachel Notley delivered her warm, impressive, heartfelt victory speech at the little more upscale ballroom of the Westin Hotel (in the old days of the Alberta NDP, election night gatherings could probably have been held in the hotel lobby…).

I mean, even a day later, who can really believe that the NDP has been elected in Alberta? (Surely some mistake, ed.) It’s insane, unworthy of even a lame April Fool’s joke. Calgary has gone from Cowtown to Maotown. As someone tweeted last night: snowballs in hell are alive and well.

Despite the passage of time, there are a number of interesting similarities between the stunning elections of Barrett and Rachel Notley, whose father Grant was head of the NDP in Alberta when his B.C. counterpart came to power. Both Barrett and Rachel Notley toppled political dynasties that seemed destined to last forever. W.A.C. Bennett had reigned over B.C. for two decades with barely a hiccup, and of course, Alberta’s Conservatives had been in power for a staggering 44 years, almost as long as the Vancouver Canucks have been without a Stanley Cup.

Both incumbent premiers waged disastrous campaigns. For them and their parties, after so many years, it was one election too many. Meanwhile, Barrett and Notley were note-perfect on the hustings. A mood for change swept over the electorate. By the end of 72-year-old W.A.C. Bennett’s bumbling re-election bid, the Socreds were desperately buying full-page newspaper ads proclaiming “young is a state of mind”. The ads pointed to a still-productive Picasso at 90 and Einstein working on his “unified field theory” into his seventies. Alas for Social Credit, there was no unified field theory to salvage the ‘72 election. “Wacky” went down in flames, as did Jim Prentice, who also seemed preposterously out of touch with ordinary voters.

Last-ditch, political scare tactics that had always worked in the past were lost in the gales of change. The unified free-enterprise vote splintered, and both Barrett and Notley were able to steamroll to power with substantially less than a majority of the popular vote. At one point last night, the Alberta NDP vote was a scant .2 percentage points higher than the 39.6% B.C. New Democrats received in 1972. (Late returns bumped it up to 40.6%.) And eerily, both Social Credit and Alberta Conservatives were nearly wiped off the electoral map with the same paltry total of 10 seats.

I also note that in their victory speeches, both Barrett and Rachel Notley began by paying tribute to and thanking the leaders they had sent into political oblivion. In Barrett’s case, his mention of W.A.C. Bennett evoked boos and laughter from the exultant crowd. “No, no,” admonished Barrett, over the din. “Any man who has served his province for 20 years deserves our respect, and I think we should recognize that.” Notley, in turn, graciously thanked Jim Prentice “for the enormous contribution he has made to this province…in many roles for many years.”

I found myself charmed by Rachel Notley’s wide, beaming smile. It seemed so refreshingly natural  and unstaged. I can see why Alberta voters flocked to her, rather than to her rather dour competitors. And yes, Barrett, too, was like that in victory. Here’s Allan Fotheringham’s description of the incoming premier as he strode towards Government House to be sworn in: “The new premier wore a continuing grin of simple pleasure. It was not a smug, greedy look. Just a boyish failure to subdue his true feelings.” Image 9 And now, the tough similarities. The way ahead for Notley, as it was for Dave Barrett, is fraught with potholes of the potentially-monstrous variety. Neither came close to a majority of the popular vote. If the free-enterprise forces get their act together, Notley could be a one-term wonder, as was Barrett. (Same with Bob Rae’s upset victory for the NDP in Ontario in 1990. They won a large majority with just 37.6% of the popular vote, then soundly trounced next time out.) In B.C.’s bitter 1975 election, the NDP actually held their share of the popular vote, but Social Credit, under the hardnosed leadership of Bill Bennett, knocked them for a loop by building an unsinkable anti-NDP coalition. The Liberal and Conservative vote basically disappeared. In a two-party race, Barrett and the NDP didn’t have a chance. They were out of office for the next 15 years, until the free enterprise forces split once more.

As did Barrett, Rachel Notley also takes over the reins of a resource-rich province with a caucus completely untested by  government. Who knows how they will perform? Barrett turned out to have some exceptionally capable ministers, several among the best this province has ever had. But he had his share of dunderheads and lacklustre performers, too. Along with more than one big blunder by Barrett, himself, these lesser-lights helped fuel perception of a gang that couldn’t shoot straight. Image 9 The reality was quite different. The Barrett government accomplished more in 39 months than perhaps any administration in Canadian history. It was done purposefully. At the new government’s first cabinet meeting, when not sliding up and down the large, shiny cabinet table in their stocking feet, they considered the question: Are we here for a good time, or a long time? As we know, they opted for a good time. “We discussed whether we were going to make fundamental changes in British Columbia,” Barrett wrote, later, “or whether we would try to hang on for a second term, rationalizing that we would get the job done next time around. We agreed unanimously to strike while the iron was hot.” Many thought they did too much too soon, without sufficient consultation. In the process, they alarmed the business community and a good chunk of the public. Their fate in the next election was sealed.

Yet their short time in office was far from all bad. Much of what that wild and crazy government did survives today. The “Barrett boys” fundamentally changed B.C., mostly for the better. So far, the approach of Rachel Notley seems a fair distance from Dave Barrett’s approach. Although both are certainly populists, early signs are that she is opting, not for the good time, but for the long time. While Barrett gleefully took on the big mining and forest companies, Notley is already talking to Alberta’s energy industry moguls, seeking to re-assure them of her desire to work together.

Meanwhile, the Alberta media must be licking their lips in anticipation of a story that keeps on giving. There will be tales galore, as there was during the Barrett government’s brief, Roman Candle launch and fall to earth. Everything seems so easy in opposition. Actual government is hard, requiring a steep learning curve. And so, to Rachel Notley and her merry band of green youngsters, i say: Welcome to the bigs. It should be a hell of a ride.

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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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BC LIBERALS SING DIFFERENT TUNE ON TREASURED ALR, NOW THAT ELECTION IS OVER

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The Agricultural Land Reserve is one of those magical creations that materialized because of courageous, far-sighted, politicians, who thought beyond votes and the next election. The province’s first NDP government, under Dave Barrett, established the ALR 40 years ago, because they believed it was the right thing to do, at a time when prime farmland was being gobbled up by developers at a terrible rate.

There was virtually no precedent anywhere for banning such a vast expanse of agricultural land from being sold for non-farming purposes, and the Barrett government had to weather a storm of furious protests from farmers, developers, and political opponents.

But a funny thing happened on the way to wiping out the NDP’s radical proclamation, once the “socialists” were thrown out of office. The public liked the ALR, and, over time so, too, did farmers. When Social Credit leader Bill Bennett was campaigning to unseat the Barrett government in 1975, he found it politically prudent to promise not to dismantle the Agricultural Land Reserve, despite his party’s earlier, fierce opposition.

The ALR, which has done so much to preserve the liveability of the Fraser Valley and save the Lower Mainland from the ghastly fate of the huge swath of farmland that once surrounded Toronto, is still with us, basically intact despite a long string of so-called ‘free enterprise’ governments. (Of course, the ALR also stretches beyond the Fraser Valley to all corners of B.C.,  ensuring that the relatively small, land area suitable for agricultural in this mountainous province is kept for its noble purpose, everywhere.)

In a wonderful twist of fate, Richard Bullock, the current chairman of the Agricultural Land Commission that presides over the ALR, was one of those protesting outside the legislature against the NDP’s farmland freeze.

Today, few are more passionate about the Agricultural Land Reserve than the successful Okanagan orchardist. For an article I wrote last year celebrating the ALR, Bullock told me that he thought the days were over, when farmers and developers with dollar signs in their eyes would live in hope of getting their land out of the ALR. “We’ve been down that road too long,” he said. “People have got to get it through their head, that if they buy a piece of agricultural land, they are going to be selling it as agricultural land.”

Now, out of nowhere, with no hints by the Liberals during the recent provincial election, the ALR may be facing its gravest peril since it came into being in the 1970’s.

Energy and Mines (!) Minister Bill Bennett, who has rarely seen a government regulation he likes, is presiding over a “core review” of government services, which, for some reason, also includes the Agricultural Land Commission and the ALR.

Last August, Bennett demonstrated his grasp of the issue with his provocative observation that “people who are sitting on a piece of land that is covered by rocks and trees, land that should never have been in the ALR boundaries in the first place, are constantly being turned down when they want to use their own private land…for the purpose of maybe a small subdivision, or maybe they want to put a small campground on it, and they’ve been flummoxed by the land commission for years.” The minister provided no examples of ALR land “covered by rocks and trees”. Talk about the fox in charge of the henhouse.

Recent disclosures are even more worrisome. Last week, the Globe and Mail’s Mark Hume revealed the existence of frightening cabinet documents that propose a dismantling of the ALC as an independent body and changing its mandate to include the government’s “economic priorities”, as well.

Then, we learned, again courtesy of the redoubtable Hume, that none other than the Agriculture Minister himself, Patrick Pimm, had personally lobbied the ALC to have a chunk of farmland up by Fort St. John hived out of the ALR, so its owner could build some rodeo grounds. Pimm was properly rebuked by the ALC for his political interference in the affairs of an independent commission.

The Liberals seemed to understand that principle in those halcyon, pre-election days last March, when they were desperate to keep the guns blazing against the NDP and its leader, Adrian Dix, who, yes it’s true, lobbied the ALC on behalf of then-Premier Glen Clark to have the Six Mile Ranch taken out of the ALR back in the late 1990’s.

I have before me a document entitled B.C. Government Caucus Information Resource, dated March 7, 2013. It’s all about ALR talking points. Among the “key messages” Liberal caucus members are asked to hammer home is point three: “Unlike the NDP, we have never politically interfered with the independence of the Agricultural Land Commission.”

The Liberals further trumpet their budget commitments to bolster enforcement by the ALC and support its “increased oversight” of the ALR. Wait, there’s more. The same budget increase will also enable the ALC to “continue with East Kootenay boundary review”, the document noted.

Oh, well. That was so eight months ago. What have we today, now that the election is safely passed?

The core review that seems to go against everything in the Liberals’ March “information resource” is continuing full steam ahead, Mr. Pimm remains Agriculture Minister, the owner of the ALR land he lobbied for went ahead and built his rodeo grounds anyway, defiantly daring the ALC to do something about it, and the ALC’s East Kootenay boundary review has been halted in its tracks, pending the vaunted core review.

For those concerned about the fate of the precious Agricultural Land Reserve under the post-election Liberals, these are worrying times, indeed. Be afraid. Be very, very afraid.