Academic journal article Capital & Class

Sympathy for the Teacher: Labour Law and Transgressive Workers' Collective Action in British Columbia, 2005

Academic journal article Capital & Class

Sympathy for the Teacher: Labour Law and Transgressive Workers' Collective Action in British Columbia, 2005

Article excerpt

Introduction

Since the 1940s, unions in Canada have been shaped by a distinctive mode of legal and administrative regulation that scholars have dubbed 'industrial pluralism'. This regime of industrial legality both granted unions a number of rights for which they had struggled for decades, and imposed new responsibilities and restrictions on unions. Its impact was not merely negative, in terms of limitations to what unions could legally do, but also constitutive, in that it actively reshaped the specific character of union praxis. A fundamental element of industrial pluralism was the prohibition of strikes except in the course of tightly regulated processes of collective bargaining. Strikes for political goals and sympathy strikes in support of other unions were banned, a move accepted by most union members and officials then and now. Since the 1940s, there have been many strikes that have broken the law because they occurred during the term of a collective agreement, as well as strikes by public-sector workers in defiance of legislation that restricts their collective action, but sympathy strikes have been extremely rare.

In this context, the strikes in support of the 38,000-strong British Columbia Teachers Federation (BCTF) in October 2005 stand out as exceptional. For a fortnight, the teachers' dispute with the provincial government was the key issue in the Pacific coast province of British Columbia (BC), and also caught the attention of many people across Canada. In response to the imposition of a contract by Premier Gordon Campbell's Liberal government, an overwhelming majority of teachers voted to strike, in full knowledge that a strike would be deemed illegal, and then walked off the job. The teachers demonstrated considerable solidarity and determination to achieve a negotiated settlement that would address their key concerns. The BCTF strike deserves its own study, but that is not the purpose of this article. The focus here is on the remarkable sympathy strike action that was organised in support of the BCTF, primarily but not only by the BC division of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE-BC). CUPE school-board workers respected BCTF pickets throughout the strike, and CUPE-BC engaged in five days of rotating regional sympathy strikes, action that clearly contravened the law. That CUPE's BC provincial leadership deliberately organised such strikes, flouting both labour law and established union norms, is noteworthy.

In order to analyse the significance of the events of October 2005 in BC, this article begins by theoretically conceptualising contemporary Canadian labour law as an element of class rule and of the political administration of the working-class movement by state power, noting the consequences for union renewal. After outlining the near-elimination of sympathy strikes following the arrival of industrial pluralism, it details the strikes of October 2005, exploring the conditions that made them possible and examining their effects, significance and implications for the working-class movement in Canada and beyond. It suggests that solidaristic collective action motivated primarily by an assessment of what forms of action are effective, rather than by what falls within the law, has an important role to play in union renewal, especially where union activity is tightly restricted by political administration.

Methodologically, this article uses theory-building and second-order analysis as well as primary research on the sympathy strikes in BC, mainly in the form of interviews with officials and activists in the province's labour movement. In the course of research, I conducted and recorded confidential, semi-structured, in-person interviews with eleven key informants in Vancouver and Victoria, BC in May 2006. I also conducted and recorded telephone interviews with two people in May 2006 and with one person in June 2006. BCTF staff kindly allowed me to consult files in the union's library, which proved useful in constructing a narrative of the events. …

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