Canada: Right Wing Government attacks workers in British Columbia

Since their spring election, the right-wing British Columbia Liberals have been carrying out a class war. With massive cuts to social services, a two-dollar reduction of the minimum wage, and huge tax cuts for the rich, it’s obvious what class this government is working for. At the same time, the economy is in tatters. In the three months prior to September eleventh, there were thirty-nine thousand people laid off in British Columbia and the terrorist attacks have only accelerated the slump. The future looks grim for the working class of British Columbia. This can serve only to radicalize the workers and youth of the province.

Less than twenty-four hours into their term, the British Columbia Liberals dealt out a twenty-five percent tax cut. Twenty percent of this tax cut went to the richest one percent of British Columbians. The Liberals then slashed social services. They have frozen education and healthcare spending and have cut all other ministries by thirty to fifty percent. Several hospitals around the province have been forced to close emergency rooms temporarily in order to save money. The Fraser Health Region is expected to be at least fifty million dollars over budget this year. Many hospitals are considering closing their emergency rooms at night. Gordon Campbell has also removed services such as eye exams and visits to the chiropractor from the healthcare system. Senior citizens have expressed their outrage over massive cuts to the Pharmacare program. These cuts will mean a higher cost of living for people who depend on prescription medicine. Rudy Lawrence, President of the Council of Senior Citizen’s Organizations, expressed that “it is outrageous to see the government betray its commitment to seniors and all British Columbians to finance a tax cut to the rich”. In just sixty days, over thirty thousand people signed a petition against the cuts to Pharmacare.

The Ministry of Human Resources has sent “seek work” letters to over 100,000 welfare recipients. New welfare recipients will receive a “back to work” timetable; when their time is done, their benefits will end. “A job is the best social safety net that you'll ever have,” says Murray Coell, Minister of Human Resources. However, as the new slump deepens the job market is getting smaller and smaller. Coell says, “people who find themselves on income assistance or find themselves untrained need to take responsibility.” This is reminiscent of an old American labour song: “Why don’t you work like other folks do? How can I work when there’s no work to do?” (Hallelujah, I’m a Bum, author unknown). There are rumors that parts of the welfare system will be privatized. This adds insult to injury.

Gordon Campbell has introduced a “training wage” for new workers in British Columbia. This is an outright attack on recent immigrants and youth in the province. For their first five hundred hours of work in the British Columbia economy, employees can now be paid as low as six dollars an hour. This is effectively a twenty-five percent reduction of the minimum wage. The Minister of Skills Development and Labour Graham Bruce says, “The first-job rate is a first step to help strengthen youth employment options.” He says, “It will give new employees an important tool to find a first job”. Pay cuts are always done in the best interest of workers! The holes in this argument are obvious. Mr. Bruce must think the people of British Columbia are incredibly stupid. He explains that the first-job rate is a way of recognizing “the valuable service employers provide to new workers”! The Minister seems to be forgetting exactly what an employee is. An employee is someone who works to make a product or service, which the employer can then sell for a much higher price than the cost of making it and paying the employee put together. Now exactly who is providing a valuable service to whom? Jim Sinclair, President of the British Columbia Federation of Labour explains that, “what's so bankrupt and shortsighted about this race for the bottom is that it's people with good wages that fuel the economy, not cheap wages and unemployment payments.” He continues; “claiming to have training is now going to be seen as a negative, not a positive, when it comes to looking for work. The minister himself admits that there will be no enforcement if employers fire a worker at 499 hours.”

The Liberals also plan to privatize British Columbia Hydro. This would directly violate their own campaign promises. The British Columbia Liberals, according to leaked documents, have already implemented plans to break up British Columbia Hydro into three separate divisions and deregulate electricity prices. The breakup will be complete by April of this year. This will drive up the cost of electricity at least thirty percent. Jim Sinclair comments "This new business model, to be ready by the end of this fiscal year, is designed to prepare Hydro for privatization and deregulation, despite the election commitments of the Premier Gordon Campbell and the overwhelming opposition of British Columbians." The people of British Columbia currently pay some of the lowest electricity prices in North America. “It is almost unbelievable that this government would consider a privatization and deregulation agenda that even its own task force says will drive prices up more than 30 percent,” says Jerri New, President of the Office, Professional Employees International Union Local 378. The Liberals had actually promised to lower the cost of electricity in British Columbia; it appears they have a different plan now that they’re in office.

The Liberals have announced plans to cut the civil service over the next three years by nearly twelve thousands jobs; over three thousand workers will be laid-off immediately. These are the deepest cuts, per capita in Canadian history. At this point it would be appropriate to list the cuts to social programs that Mr. Campbell has made. Unfortunately, the list is too long; it would take six pages. These cuts sweep through almost every social program there is, clearly attacking the working class. The Liberals have halted construction on thirty expansion projects at colleges around British Columbia. They plan to close twenty-four courthouses and eight jails, cramming the prisoners into other, already overcrowded facilities. The cuts are endless. The Liberals seem to have a simple tactic: privatize everything. In short, this means that the standard of living of working class people in British Columbia will plummet.

British Columbians have been hit especially hard by the global recession. In 2001, British Columbia’s exports fell by twenty-five percent and in the last month almost twice as many people have been laid off in British Columbia as in the rest of Canada combined. The official unemployment rate has risen to a staggering 9.7%. The softwood lumber dispute has cut about twenty thousand jobs from British Columbia’s largest industry; that number is expected to rise to thirty thousand. The second largest industry is tourism, which is always one of the first to be effected by a recession. The Canada 3000 building sits empty in the heart of downtown Vancouver.

Gordon Campbell has not only attacked the social services, but also eliminated almost twelve thousand jobs. There is no logic to Campbell’s cuts on an economic level, as they will cut the already contracting market. The recession will deepen; more workers will be left idle; more social services will be slashed, and all of this will leave us with no choice but to organize and fight. The true reason behind this attack is to break the back of the workers and the Labour Movement. This is not just another Union struggle but a fight for the very right of workers to be organized. Every major strike now must contend with the power of the capitalist State. We cannot defeat these measures by the quiet old methods. If the bosses’ government is willing to use State power to oppose any action in defence of working people then the workers must fight back with our most effective weapon. Only mass demonstrations, strikes, and occupations can win. The British Columbia Federation of Labour must organize a major campaign alongside all workers, both union and non-union. A one day general strike must be called to galvanize workers’ opposition. Anything less is a betrayal.