Opinion

Editorial — Teachers' dispute energizes labour movement

Will the teachers’ strike morph into a 2012 version of Operation Solidarity, the 1983 labour-led protest that brought B.C. to the brink of a general strike?

While there are some similarities, it isn’t too likely — despite the rhetoric of labour leaders and a mysterious sympathy picket line that shut down some provincial government operations in Victoria on Tuesday.

In 1983, the Social Credit government of Bill Bennett brought in a sweeping program of government  economy, and took a few direct pokes at some bodies it did not like, such as the rent review office and the human rights commission,  under the “restraint” theme. This occurred shortly after an election, and unlike the imposition of the HST under Gordon Campbell in 2009, the government was clear during the campaign that, if elected, there would be some attempt to curb spending and government programs.

When the whole program was introduced in a sweeping series of bills, organized labour and many community organizations were appalled. They quickly put together an action plan that included a series of protests and strikes, with the final step before a planned general strike of all unionized employees being a week-long illegal walkout by teachers.

The Bennett government clearly overreached, and Operation Solidarity did succeed in getting it to back down on a few fronts, notably a plan to fire government employees without cause and gut contracts with its unionized workers.

However, it took late-night negotiations at the premier’s home with Jack Munro, head of the largest private sector union in the province, to make that breakthrough. Munro was vilified for years by fellow labour activists for “caving.”

The level of anger at the provincial government was far higher in 1983 than it is today. Operation Solidarity attracted 40,000 people to a rally at Empire Stadium and succeeded in getting 60,000 people to protest outside a Social Credit convention. It is highly unlikely that the teachers could attract that level of support. Most workers, including government workers, are not getting raises. The B.C. Teachers Federation call for 15 per cent pay increases and improved benefits doesn’t resonate.

However, the BC Liberal government has clearly angered not just the BCTF, but much of organized labour. It has given the labour movement renewed energy and passion.

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