On February 23, 2002 an estimated fifty thousand people gathered on the lawn of the British Columbian Legislature to express their opposition to the right-wing BC Liberals. The Liberals have been consistently and systematically attacking the working class of British Columbia ever since their election last spring. They soared to victory on a platform that was a pack of lies and now the people of British Columbia are angry. Betrayed by the government, workers are demanding action.
The trek to Victoria began with a 6.00 a.m. ferry ride. The ferry was packed with thousands of protesters. Every ferry that morning was filled to capacity with angry workers. There was one small section where a group of about half a dozen businessmen in suits sat together starring at the floor. They looked extremely guilty. There were people selling literature and T-shirts, making signs and even anti-Campbell-karaoke! The whole ferry was full of political discussion.
After the ferry we began a half-hour drive down the highway leading into Victoria. Every over-pass was full of protesters hanging banners that read "Campbell's cuts are too deep" or "Some cuts never heal" (referring to chapter 11 of the North American Free Trade Agreement which makes sure that once an industry has been privatized it can never go back to public ownership).
The rally had a very militant mood. People are angry. This government doesn't care about us; they only see dollar signs. We chanted slogans like "They say cut back. We say fight back!" and "No justice, no peace." It must have been a scary sight for the MLAs: fifty thousand people on their front lawn singing Solidarity Forever.
The media however didn't report it as such. Some of the corporate media's estimates were as low as 10,000 people in attendance and even that was completely overshadowed by the coverage of Canada's Olympic gold medals in men and women's hockey. Gordon Campbell bragged about sitting at home watching the Olympics while the people of BC were at the legislature. That shows how much he cares about us!
It is no wonder the people of British Columbia are so angry. Ten months into their term, the BC Liberals continue to carry out a class war. With massive cuts to social services and attacks on working British Columbians, it is a wonder that these lowly excuses for human beings could call themselves Liberal. Just hours into his term, Gordon Campbell issued a huge income tax cut mostly benefiting the rich. Now he has raised PST and other taxes that affect mainly the working class. The Liberals have legislated contracts in several major labour disputes and have even cut the minimum wage for new workers by twenty-five percent. At the same time, British Columbia has been hit hard by the global crisis of capitalism. The economy has been decimated; thousands of workers have been laid off; everyone is feeling the combined effects of a global recession and an extreme right-wing government.
The Liberals have frozen spending on the already under-funded healthcare and education programs in BC. They have just announced plans to increase our Medical Service Plan premiums by 50%; completely obliterating any benefit due to tax cuts. Many hospitals have been forced to close their emergency rooms at night; some have even permanently eliminated certain services. Many hospitals around BC are expected to close altogether this spring, but the private sector hasn't wasted any time in building new ones. Canada's first private hospital in generations is being built right now in Abbotsford, BC. The Liberals have raised healthcare premiums, but where is the money going? Services are certainly not improving.
Students in BC are really feeling the crunch. Gordon Campbell's Liberals have lifted the tuition freeze; tuition for post-secondary students is expected to rise by at least thirty percent in the next year with more to come in following years. Some programs at the University of British Columbia are going to have their tuition increased by over three hundred percent next year. In the new budget, the BC Liberals eliminated education grants for first year post-secondary students. It is next to impossible to save up a year's tuition when you're living on six dollars an hour - it looks like education is only for the rich in BC. Gordon Campbell has removed elementary and secondary class size limits from collective agreements, leaving under-funded school districts with no choice but to over-pack classrooms, making it impossible for teachers to do their job well. This is hardly the way that British Columbians envisioned the "top-notch education system" that the Liberals promised, "for students of all ages".
Gordon's government has also announced plans to cut the civil service by twelve thousand jobs over the next three years. 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 tactic is simple: privatize everything. In short, this means that the standard of living of working class people in British Columbia will plummet.
BC Hydro is high on the to-privatize list. This directly violates the BC Liberals' campaign promises (not that lying is something unusual for this government). They have, according to leaked documents, already implemented plans to break up British Columbia Hydro into three separate divisions and deregulate electricity prices. This break-up will be complete by April of this year. This will drive up the cost of electricity by at least thirty percent. The people of British Columbia currently pay some of the lowest electricity prices in North America. The Liberals promised they would lower the cost of electricity in British Columbia; they have a different plan now that they're in office.
These cuts have not been without opposition. The new government's approval rating is in freefall. 55% say the Liberals are going "too far, too fast". Citizens of BC are angry. Even in the small town of Kimberley, 2,000 people, or one third of the population, left work to join a protest against cuts. Even the mayor shut down City Hall for the day to join in the protest. However, what many people do not realize is that these cuts have nothing to do with boosting economic growth. The aim of the Liberals is not to "jump-start the economy" or to "open the doors for investment". These cuts are actually counter-productive even in a capitalist sense; they further cut the already-contracting market for goods and services in BC. How can a capitalist factory owner make any profit when nobody can afford to buy the product? The real purpose of the cuts is to defeat and demoralize the working class of British Columbia. The drastic and sudden nature of these attacks is designed to leave the workers bewildered and in a state of shock. The Liberals want to build a society like Thatcher's Britain or Harris' Ontario, where big business is free to do whatever they want, where profits rule and human welfare just doesn't matter. This is why we must fight back. This is not just a fight for specific social programs; it is a fight for the labour movement itself.
Organized labour is sounding the alarm. The rank-and-file members of the unions are mad as hell and ready to fight, but despite radical-sounding speeches the labour leaders are holding back. Pressure is building from below for a campaign of serious economic disruption. Workers are beginning to call for a one-day general strike. The leaders of the trade unions have been calling for action whilst slowly retreating. The labour leaders first promised strike action if there were massive layoffs; twelve thousand people were laid off and little happened. Then they promised strikes if contracts were broken; public employee's contracts were gutted and there was only minor action. Now they talk of a general strike if the Liberals rip up the labour code. Well, the Liberals have just announced sweeping changes to the labour code that leaves workers virtually defenceless. Where is the real line in the sand? By the time union leaders are ready to fight there will be nothing left to defend!
One of the most common excuses for this lacklustre response from the bureaucrats is that the membership doesn't care and doesn't want a fight. This is ridiculous - you only have to lift your head up and see how many people are demonstrating in and around the province to see how the people feel about this government. The leaders complain that members don't show up for meetings. Members don't show up at meetings because the unions are mostly inactive. Workers will start attending union meetings when the unions stop compromising and start offering a solution. Show some leadership and give us a reason to leave our families one night a week to attend a meeting! The workers are ready to fight.
In 1983, under similar conditions, Operation Solidarity was built. The BC Federation of Labour called an emergency meeting of all unions in BC. The BCTF joined striking BCGEU members; transit workers were set to walk as well. Under the correct leadership this could have easily been turned into a general strike, but in November the leaders of Operation Solidarity sold out. They ended the strike on a verbal agreement and a gentleman's handshake, betraying the workers. The whole movement came and went in five months. This demonstrates how rapidly a movement can develop and the tendency of the bureaucracy to conciliate to the capitalist system. We cannot let the same thing happen this time.
It seems as though the labour leaders intended February 23 to be a day for workers to let off steam and vent some of their frustrations. They just want to get this whole protest business over with so they can get things back to normal. Unfortunately, things can't get back to normal for the working class of the province. And normal never really was that great anyways! The BC Federation of Labour wants to plan a communication campaign leading up to the civic elections in November and then, hopefully, a recall campaign in 2003! This isn't good enough. Workers are angry now. We need action now!
There are other mass demonstrations being planned. The people of BC are not willing to give up yet. But without an organized expression of our anger the movement will dissipate. Unfortunately the state of ferment will only last so long. People can't fight forever. This movement needs a leadership that is truly representative of the people. A leadership that isn't afraid to call a one-day general strike to kick out the Liberals.