Canada: Tactics for victory on the picket line

We’ve seen disgruntled public service workers taking action all over Canada in the last year or so – whether it be teachers in Québec, twenty-thousand Newfoundland public sector workers, Ontario’s Hydro One workers, or the members of the Hospital Employees’ Union. The increasing labour unrest culminated this summer when private sector workers stepped onto the scene in a major way with the victorious Truckers’ strike.

For about a month, the Truckers’ strike at the Port of Vancouver was front and centre in Canada’s mainstream media – ‘costing British Columbia’s economy $75 million a day’ … ‘guns fired on the line’ … ‘government pressured to intervene’ … It should be no surprise that the story was dropped abruptly when it became clear that the truckers were going to win. The ruling class is correct to be afraid of the repercussions of word getting out about the truckers’ victory. With two high profile lockouts at Telus and CBC already underway, news of a victorious strike (especially such an unconventional and militant one) is not good news for big business or their government. Outsourcing and contracting out are at the top of the agenda for capitalists and many contracts are set to expire in both the public and private sectors this year.

We at Fightback have explained over the past few years that the crisis of world capitalism would before long force major attacks on private sector workers and unions and that this would be a turning point for the Canadian labour movement and working class struggle. In a very concrete and tangible way, the capitalist system that currently dominates the globe demands that the profits of the capitalists continually increase. If a company’s profits don’t increase ‘more than the next guy’, they will be out-competed and either bought out by a larger company or forced to close shop. We see this happen again and again, and it is the reason for the increasing dominance of a few huge corporations and the growing divide between the working majority and wealthy minority. Ever-rising profits depend on expanding markets and cutting costs. With more and more workers under attack even here in the west, there is very little room for “expanding markets”. So, the capitalists have to resort to cutting costs. This always means attacking workers – lay offs, reduced wages and benefits, outsourcing and contracting out. But we don’t take these attacks lying down. These are the very actions that eventually lead working people to say they’ve had enough and demand a higher standard of work and living. This is the dilemma, the contradiction, the crisis that capitalism faces.

The neo-liberal privatizations, attacks on the labour movement, and spending cuts by Premiers Gordon Campbell and Jean Charest have made British Columbia and Québec hot spots for struggle in the public sector. But we’ve seen disgruntled public service workers taking action all over Canada in the last year or so – whether it be teachers in Québec, twenty-thousand Newfoundland public sector workers, Ontario’s Hydro One workers, or the members of the Hospital Employees’ Union who had British Columbia ready for general strike before being sold down the river by the leadership. The increasing labour unrest culminated this summer when private sector workers stepped onto the scene in a major way with the victorious Truckers’ strike at the Port of Vancouver and the Telus workers hitting the line in response to the company’s attempt to impose a contract after nearly 5 years of refusing to negotiate. Now Canada’s public broadcaster, the CBC, has locked out its employees, bringing some famous faces and household names out onto the picket lines.

In B.C. during the HEU strike, it was possible to say “everybody knows somebody in the HEU”. The Telus and CBC lock outs have brought the struggle against contracting out and for the right to collective bargaining even closer to home. There is widespread hatred for Telus as the company that destroyed good service and quality telecommunications by buying up the once government-owned telephone companies AGT, EdTel and BCTel. Instead of getting a friendly conscientious Telus worker at the end of the line, we now get the infamous ‘voice in a can’, which responds ‘I’m sorry, I do not understand’ when confronted with a barrage of nasty four-letter words. And of course, CBC is the home of the people who join us in our living rooms for the news. Despite the media’s effort to portray the striking truckers as a bunch of gun-toting gangsters, even their plight made sense to the public.

Everybody who has to drive to work in this vast sprawling country is affected by skyrocketing prices at the pump. It doesn’t take too much insight to see why it’s hurting truck drivers. Much like the construction industry, the trucking industry is made up largely of owner-operators. These ‘small businessmen’ are exempt from employment standards, responsible for all operating costs, and usually still completely at the mercy of the company they contract their services to. The glory days of cruisin’ the open road and bringing in good money to make up for days missed with the family are long gone. Trucking is now a notoriously competitive and dangerous job. Although studies show that the crash risk increases substantially after 8 hours of driving, 11 or 14 hour days are not uncommon, and most drivers work 6 days a week to make ends meet (Truck Driver Workload Public Consultation Forum, Summary of Proceedings, Sept. 28, 2000). But the strike that began on June 27th was all about rising gas prices. The owner-operators are paid $300 to $400 a day, yet it now costs $350 per day just to run the vehicle. Quite literally, many truck drivers were losing money by going to work!

Gordon Campbell was likely foaming at the mouth throughout the truckers’ strike. Considering he deemed it necessary to legislate UBC’s student teaching assistants back to work, he would undoubtedly have done the same in this strike which was costing the economy billions of dollars. However, not only does transportation fall under federal jurisdiction, but since the truck drivers are owner-operators rather than employees, they cannot (according to Canadian law) really be members of a union and cannot actually go on strike. They therefore could not be legislated back. The bourgeois politicians will now pull some legislation out of their hats, so that they don’t find themselves in this embarrassing situation again. But the truck drivers DID organize and they DID form a union, and they WERE on strike – not because it’s ‘written in the law that they may do so’, but because this is the way that working class people effect change! We collectively down our tools, halt production, and block the flow of goods, services and money, until our demands are met. This is how we won the eight hour day, anti-child labour legislation, the minimum wage, and recognition of our unions in the first place – and it certainly wasn’t legal! Now these basic rights are all under attack again, and if we are going to get them back, we are going to have to take a page out of the books of the truckers and of our forefathers who weren’t afraid to do collectively what needed to be done.

The ruling class will do whatever it takes to keep the profits coming in and bring the labour movement down. They will privatize, outsource, rip up and impose contracts. And they will write whatever ‘laws’ they need to make their actions legal and ours illegal. The Canadian Industrial Relations Board (CIRB) has repeatedly found Telus to be bargaining in bad faith, but the company has had no reason to comply, since the Labour Code and Labour Relations exist – this may be a surprise to some – for their protection and not ours. On the other hand, they have successfully injuncted the TWU picket lines to the point of ineffectuality, limiting the number of picketers on a given line to 60 and disallowing any contact with scabs or blocking of entryways.

Victory lies in the ability of the locked out workers to look beyond the bounds of bourgeois legality. They must be two steps ahead of the company, with creative and militant action that hinders the flow of profits despite the injunctions, and forces the struggle to be kept in the media. Secondly, if the Telus and CBC workers are to be successful, their struggles must be generalized, with other unions called on to take solidarity strike action. There are fabulous examples of both creative action and generalization of the movement in the University of British Columbia Teaching Assistants’ strike (winter 2002-2003, see the Fightback archives at www.marxist.ca).

The UBC TA strike was, believe it or not, the first victorious strike in Gordon Campbell’s term (something he’s certainly not proud of). Their victory was the direct result of a militant leadership who insisted on democratic control by the membership. All of the important strategizing and decision-making was carried out democratically by the members themselves. This harnessed the enormous enthusiasm and creative potential of these downtrodden workers. Throughout the struggle, the TAs could be seen (and heard) marching through campus chanting, playing musical instruments and “making noise”. They were continually postering and leafleting with the details of the struggle, urging students and the public to be supportive. They kept themselves in the media with their creative actions and called openly for other unions to support them. One morning, the TAs and their supporters hosted Breakfast at Martha’s, to which they brought guest speakers, music, and hundreds of bagels for a 6am protest on the university president’s front lawn. These are just a few examples of creative actions that kept the union two steps ahead, so the employer was stuck in constant response mode. This kind of action requires the participation of the membership and serves to generate more and better ideas. It also does wonders for morale, which in any battle, must be kept up.

The leadership at CUPE 2278 (the UBC Teaching Assistants’ local), was a leadership that was not afraid to say “if the injunctions are out-of-line, we will ignore them”. As mentioned above, the Campbell government had the nerve to legislate the Teaching Assistants back to work (despite obviously not being an essential service). This is a clear vindication that the government, which represents the big business interests that fund it, has no respect for the right to strike and will do whatever it takes to hinder our ability to effect change through our unions. Realising this, the union caught everybody off guard when not only the Teaching Assistants, but all three of the campus worker locals were out in full force the morning after the legislation. This wildcat action blocked all of the university gates, effectively halting business as usual and threatening to spread beyond the university, to other CUPE locals. By defying the back-to-work legislation, the TAs proved that they were willing to do whatever was necessary, and their threat to spread the struggle throughout the city was taken seriously, ultimately forcing the university and government to give in.

The secret to victory for the Telus and CBC workers lies in their ability to look outside the bounds of bourgeois legality, taking creative and militant action to disrupt the flow of profits and keep their struggles in the public eye. They will also depend on support in the form of solidarity strike action from the labour movement and other militant action from the community at large.

There is no limit to what can be achieved by workers who are organized, empowered and mobilized!

* Victory for the Telus workers!

* Victory for the CBC workers!

 

Fightback calls on the labour movements to organize strategic solidarity strike actions, and for the immediate formation of community solidarity squads to take up creative action in support of the Telus and CBC workers.