In a period of seven days, a strike involving 43,000 health support workers - cleaners, orderlies, cooks, licensed practical nurses, accountants and others - escalated to what was to be a general strike in the Canadian province of British Columbia. But the magnificent action was sabotaged last Sunday night by leaders of the Health Employees Union (HEU) and the British Columbia Federation of Labour.
The strike began Monday April 26 over government demands that the workers accept the government’s plan to reopen the existing collective agreement in order to impose layoffs and wage and benefit concessions, amounting to over C$900 million worth, including a wage cut of up to 17%. Over 85% of the union is female and many of them are immigrants or women of colour making them some of the most vulnerable workers in the public sector. The strike escalated as the BC nurses’ union vowed not to cross picket lines
The neo-liberal government of Gordon Campbell has become increasingly unpopular among workers due to privatisation, cutbacks, and attacks on workers rights over its three years in office. Anger at the government, and outrage at its treatment of workers, led to universal sympathy with HEU strikers, and a growing solidarity, first by other public sector workers, and then by workers in the private sector.
Incredible sign of working class unity
Workers in the province were outraged when, last Thursday, the government passed ‘back to work’ legislation which implemented a 15% pay cut, retroactive to 1 April. Not only did the strike remain solid as workers defied the law to continue what was now an illegal strike, but many other public workers across the province walked off the job in solidarity, including ferry workers and many teachers. Private sector workers shut down a pulp and paper mill in Prince George and the Teamsters’ union announced they would not cross picket lines. Many individual Teamsters left work and joined the HEU pickets. Building trade workers and other members of supposedly "conservative" craft unions were also preparing to walk off the job in an incredible sign of working class unity.
Over the weekend, the movement escalated into what became a wider action with 100,000 workers, including transit workers and teachers prepared to walk off the job on Monday. It was anticipated that by mid-week the action would escalate to a full scale general strike, of not only public but private sector workers that would force the government to back down or even push them out of power.
On Sunday, the courts ruled the continued walkout illegal and threatened to impose heavy fines against the unions and jail union leaders. As workers prepared to shut down the province their leaders met with the government to sell them out. The HEU union tops, in consultation with the head of the province’s Federation of Labour, agreed to a "settlement", in which the workers would accept a 10% wage cut and work 2.5 more hours a week, in exchange for the number of positions contracted out being limited to 300.
Picketers, and indeed workers as a whole, were outraged when they woke up Monday morning to the deal and to demands by their leaders that they go back to work. A number refused. Picket lines remained in places and workplace closures occurred sporadically around the province. But, without a fighting organisation of socialists in the union, there was no structural backbone in place for an organised defiance of this betrayal.
The past week’s events have reminded the working class of two important lessons. First, that workers consciousness and solidarity can crystallise very rapidly into a militant movement that few would have thought possible. The supposed divisions within the working class that separate private sector and public sector, white collar and blue collar, can quickly evaporate, as workers instinctively recognise that they have more in common with each other than with their bosses.
Second, that the union bureaucracy cannot be trusted and workers must build grassroots socialist movements in their unions. These movements can fight for militant action and also provide leadership during struggles when union bureaucrats try to sell out workers.