Canada: General Strike Betrayed By Union Bosses

43,000 hospital workers in British Columbia have been sold-out by their union leaders. Despite the workers defying the government in an illegal strike, mass wildcat strikes by other unions, and significant support from the public, the labour bureaucracy has signed a deal containing a 15% wage cut. This was done behind the backs of the workers and currently reports are coming in of strikers vowing to stay on the lines in defiance of the government and their "leaders".

Hospital ancillary workers, mainly women and members of immigrant communities, represented by the Hospital Employees Union (HEU) have faced the brunt of the attacks by the BC Liberal government. Their demands were no contracting out and no wage cuts. However, under modern capitalism even asking for the status-quo is a revolutionary act. 

Upon coming into power the BC Liberals, led by Gordon Campbell, instituted a $2 billion tax cut with the majority going to the rich and corporations. To finance this tax cut the workers were asked to sacrifice, and if asking did not do the job then conditions would be imposed. The Liberals passed legislation that ripped up the HEU’s collective agreement by removing any protection from contracting out ancillary hospital work to non-union firms. This was despite the fact that Gordon Campbell had promised not to do this in the HEU’s own newsletter prior to the election. This act prompted mass demonstrations, chants of "Liar, Liar!" and the call for illegal job action. 

The leaders however vacillated and did nothing despite the fact that the very existence of the union was in jeopardy if all its work was contracted out. One year ago the HEU leadership attempted to broker a deal outside the normal contract cycle in order to lessen the effect of contracting out. They recommended to the membership a contract with a 15% wage cut and a cap of "only" 5000 jobs contracted out. The workers correctly rejected this deal by 57% due to opposition to the wage cut and the belief that it was impossible to believe anything this government said. Having been defeated in their attempt at moderation the HEU leadership was forced to take the road of militancy. The HEU’s contract expired April 1, 2004, setting the stage for a confrontation with the government.

Canadian capitalism is at a crossroads. Federal, Provincial, and Municipal governments are all following the dictates of their corporate masters and are attempting to cut back on public expenditure (read: jobs and services). In Canada 17.5% of the population are public employees, compared with 14.6% in the USA and 12.6% in Britain (down 7% in a decade). Assuming relatively constant wages, this puts the Canadian capitalists at a disadvantage when it comes to keeping their profits. They are faced with the choice of attacking public sector workers or seeing their international market share shrink. It is the capitalist system that forces the government to act this way – if they try to keep people happy the economy suffers; if they attempt to improve competitiveness they incite revolt. The BC Liberals have chosen class war and the health workers have answered their challenge.

The strike begins

On April 24, the HEU pulled its workers and set up pickets at all of the hospitals in British Columbia. Essential service workers were allowed to cross, however elective surgeries and diagnostic tests were cancelled as nurses respected the picket lines. The employer was insisting on a contract with 100 pages of roll-backs including a 15% wage cut and no barriers to contracting out. At this point 6000 jobs had been lost to multinational firms such as Sodexo and Aramark which pay their workers $10/hr compared with the union wage of $18. They justified this by saying, "Why should a hospital cleaner get any more than other cleaners on minimum wage?", the union members asked back, "Have you ever tried to clean a SARS ward?"

Everybody was expecting the workers to be legislated back to work. Despite its "progressive" reputation and labour laws, Canadian governments have been resorting to a nasty little tactic. When the workers are on strike in a key industry, and the resolve of the workers is such that it is only a matter of time until they win, governments have passed emergency legislation to remove the right to strike and enforce a contract or arbitration on the workers. Unions that defy the legislation face fines and imprisonment. 

The Campbell Liberal government has used back-to-work legislation more often than any government in history and has even earned a rebuke from the ILO for its undemocratic behaviour. This tactic is especially useful when a government wants to impose cutbacks. We recently saw 20,000 Newfoundland public employees legislated back after over 3 weeks on strike in the largest strike in the history of the province. Even though this act prompted the largest demonstration ever in Newfoundland, the leaders hung their heads and said "we must respect the law". We wonder where we would be today if the pioneers of the labour movement had held the same position when even forming a union was illegal. This time the movement had learnt that legislation can be defied. The first to defy legislation were workers at the University of British Columbia who went on 2 days of illegal strike in March 2003 and gained concessions. Next the ferry workers illegally shut down the system and forced the government to compromise. Both sides knew that the HEU strike would be make or break for both sides.

Workers defy legislation

As expected the BC Liberals legislated the workers on April 28. After an all-night sitting Bill 37 was passed at 5am the following morning. The bill passed was pure spite aimed at teaching the workers a lesson for rejecting the previous deal. It removed the right to strike and imposed a contract on the workers. The contract contained a 15% wage rollback, no limits on contracting out. The wage cut was retroactive to April 1, so the workers would also have to pay back the money they were "overpaid"! In response Chris Allnutt for the HEU declared the workers would stay out until they had a fair settlement. Finally a lead had been given and the workers answered the call enthusiastically. Spontaneously, 800 hydroelectric dam workers walked off the job in sympathy. Workers across the province had been waiting for the opportunity to oppose the Liberals and this was it. Barry O’Neill of CUPE BC declared that CUPE’s planned one-day walkout (see previous article: Canada: CUPE BC One-Day Walkout - Full marks for effort - method has problems. ) would be called for Monday, May 3. Many CUPE locals could not wait for Monday and 20,000 workers struck Friday, April 30 closing down some schools and municipal services. Other wildcats were reported in CEP and IWA pulp, paper, and saw mills – for the first time spreading the strike to the private sector. Even the flow of beer was endangered as Molson and Labatt distribution centres were picketed! "GENERAL STRIKE! GENERAL STRIKE!" was the popular chant on the pickets. The stage was set for a massive May Day demonstration.

Vancouver has no real tradition of May Day which is normally put on by immigrant groups and the left. Last weekend 6000 marched in a very militant parade. While this may sound small by European standards, one must take into consideration the fact that most of the workers were still on picket lines. Jim Sinclair of the BC Federation of Labour (BC Fed) attempted to walk a fine line between denouncing the Liberals and not getting people too riled up. He spoke of the need for discipline, workers must follow the leaders. While most workers were enthused by the spontaneous walkouts the labour bureaucracy was clearly afraid of losing control. Every time a chant of "General Strike" was begun the speakers attempted to drown it out and discourage it. An acceptable chant initiated from the stage was "We wont back down!". 

In the event of no deal a mass walkout was being planned for Monday, May 3 with escalating action throughout the week. In addition to 43,000 HEU strikers, 70,000 CUPE municipal, schools and university workers were to go out, plus 40,000 teachers, Stelco Steelworkers, and the recently privatized BC Rail amongst others. In total this would represent over 30% of unionized workers in the province – the revolution would start Monday morning, 6 o’clock. All the right wing pundits (both outside and within the labour movement) continuously warned, "Don’t go too far or you’ll scare away public support" and they said this before the strike, before the illegal strike, before the solidarity strikes, and before the general strike. But the best the corporate press could do was print the complaints of a right wing couple living across the street from the hospital who said they were sick of hearing car horns honking in support of the workers at all times of the day. The workers were solid.

The anatomy of a sell-out

With the chants of "We wont back down" ringing in their ears the labour bureaucracy started working on a compromise that would avoid the confrontation that they feared so much. The first evidence of the betrayal came from the Provincial New Democratic Party’s new leader Carole James (see article for background: British Columbia NDP: Bureaucracy maintains stranglehold - Left builds support for future battles ). She said that while she wanted Bill 37 to be repealed the government should "at least address the issues of retroactivity and a cap on contracting out". The right wing of the movement feared that a general strike would hurt them electorally so they wanted it nipped in the bud with a face saving formula. Secret talks began between the government and the union bosses with there being 2 main barriers – the right wing of the BC Liberals who want to teach the workers a lesson, and secondly the workers themselves not keen on being sacrificed at the altar of electoral expediency and reverence for the bourgeois state. One can be sure that the threat of $470,000 per day fines for illegal strikes weighed heavily on the minds of the labour leaders when they eyed their $100,000+ paycheques, expense accounts, and courtesy cars. 

The hotheads in cabinet were won over to the reality of what could be a historic working class movement and eventually the deal was presented by a dishevelled looking Jim Sinclair at 11pm Sunday, May 2. All he could say was that it was a good deal for patients! The strike was called off by the leaders of the BC Fed, HEU and CUPE without a vote or any form of consultation with the workers. The new deal removes the retroactivity component and caps contracting out to an additional 600 workers over 2 years (in addition to the 6000 already fired). The imposed contract saves $200,000 for the government off 43,000 workers – the same amount as the tax cut given to the 8000 richest British Columbians.The 15% wage cut remains so this deal is in fact worse than the one the workers rejected by 57% which would have had a cap of 5000 fired. The response from the workers was swift; the following scene played out on TV:

Sandra Giesbrecht, picket captain Royal Jubilee Hospital, speaking to picketers,

"So I have to know what my members want to do,"


"I don’t think we want to be sold down the river by anybody like Jim Sinclair who sat on a fence for 2 years and did nothing for us. And I say this to the BC Fed, the HEU, and any other union leaders who are listening – we have the fortitude to stay out as long as it takes"


We are hearing reports of similar statements from hospitals across the province and strikers are fanning out to contact each other to bolster the lines. When HEU president Fred Muzin told Surrey hospital workers to remove the pickets he was apparently told to "f--- off".

Crisis of leadership

Leon Trotsky explained that the crisis of modern society has been reduced to the crisis of working class leadership. Carole James, Jim Sinclair, and the other parliamentary cretinists in the leadership of the NDP and the Unions fear the workers far more than they fear the capitalists. In fact, even on a narrow electoral scheme a movement like the health workers can galvanize the working class and give the NDP a massive election victory. This is only on the condition that the NDP backs the workers 110% and adopts a socialist program that can solve the crisis in healthcare. 

Over the course of one week we saw a revolution in the class-consciousness of workers in British Columbia. Imagine the impact of 40,000 health workers campaigning to defeat the Liberal government they hate. The logic of this movement was a general strike that would bring down the government. Pundits were already talking of a snap election to decide the issue; this happened after the British miners strike in 1974 and Labour kicked out the Tories. 

It is not clear that the bureaucrats have the intelligence to think this far, but the last thing they would want is to be brought to power under conditions of working class mobilization. As soon as you accept capitalism you accept defeat. Under conditions of capitalist crisis all governments are forced to attack the workers, be they social-democratic or neo-liberal. A mobilized labour movement would not let their leaders betray them so easily and would prepare the way for new convulsions. A "leader" like Carole James would not last long under such conditions. Our position would have been to call for the creation of extended strike committees based on hospitals with representatives from local work places and community groups to spread the strike and provide democratic leadership, thereby preventing the betrayal. 

Capitalism is demonstrably incapable of guaranteeing the status quo for workers, even in an apparently rich country like Canada. If workers want to improve their standing they must break with capitalism and join the fight for socialism. The last few days have shown how important leadership is to success or failure, so we cannot leave the movement at the mercy of class betrayers. Over the last week the workers put in enough sacrifice and courage to overthrow this rotten government and make the first steps on the road to overthrow capitalism. The battle is set back but not yet over and the workers may even turn this around despite the betrayal. The small forces of Marxism in Canada, around the paper L’Humanité, are working to ensure the movement has the leadership it needs to achieve victory. We call on all those who burn at the betrayal and want justice for working people to join us.