G Stands for General Strike

Article excerpt

In the July/August issue of CD, the "Labour Report" column suggested that it was high time for activists and the Left in the labour movement, especially in public-sector unions, to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of significant political struggles including mass work stoppages, especially those in which we have been personally involved. The point is not to reminisce, but to participate in a debate around how to build resistance to the right-wing hammerings we continue to endure, with, frankly, no end in sight.

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This makes sense to me, not just because of the successive drubbing of unions in collective bargaining or via draconian legislation. It's also because the challenges posed to labour by the ascendancy of neoliberalism increasingly are political, featuring in the last couple of decades the fading away of the social compromises with governments and ruling economic power formerly pursued by trade unions. Many on the Left have insisted that as a result, there ought to be increased importance placed on developing labour's own political analysis and program, and a deepening of the convergence of unions with social-justice networks, the anti-globalization movement and community allies who share with labour the massive impact of privatization, contracting out of jobs and the gutting of social benefits. The continuing difficulties between labour and its coalition partners around the process of decision-making offers up another subject for critical evaluation.

Most recently, the Left inside and outside the labour movement has weighed in on the role of the Hospital Employees' Union and the B.C. Federation of Labour leadership in response to the odious Campbell government's Bill 37. Some are sharply critical of its failure to build on the unprecedented solidarity of the labour movement and broad segments of the public by escalating work stoppages leading to a general strike. Accepting the deal with all its concessions has been portrayed as scuttling a stunning opportunity to successfully confront the brutal B.C. Liberal regime and move the B.C. working class forward politically. Harsh assessments of labour leaders' underlying motives have circulated.

The disappointment of B.C. labour activists and the Left over this situation isn't hard to comprehend. It's lamentably true that labour's leadership, in B.C. and pretty well everywhere else you can think of, hasn't yet been able to develop the necessary strategies, along with our political allies in the community, to collectively beat back the likes of the Campbell government. However, as a socialist and a long-time elected union activist, I doubt very much that conjecture about who did what to whom and with which iniquitous intent will be anywhere near as helpful as having a good look at the lessons we can draw from this and other situations involving mass labour and coalition actions, with an eye to future struggles.

Before trotting the B.C. Fed leadership out to the working-class woodshed, I think the Left should at least recognize that theses folks were clear from the beginning that the purpose of their mobilizing efforts around Bill 37 was to achieve a settlement for striking health-care workers. To this end, it's indisputable that the Fed mobilized massive support.

I can't help compare this effort to that of the Canadian Labour Congress in 1978, when the Canadian Union of Postal Workers defied back-to-work legislation after one day of a legal strike for a collective agreement. A hostile CLC leadership failed to provide any support and implied CUPW was impudently demanding a general strike (not so). In a notorious press release during the strike, the CLC characterized postal workers' defiance as "suicidal" and stated we were pushing the labour movement toward "a course of action which takes us down the road to anarchy."

On the one hand, in 1978, a labour leadership openly invites the government and employer to attack at will a union in a difficult struggle. …