CANADA

The hard politics of Bennett’s hard sell

Malcolm Gray August 23 1982
CANADA

The hard politics of Bennett’s hard sell

Malcolm Gray August 23 1982

The hard politics of Bennett’s hard sell

CANADA

Malcolm Gray

Even in British Columbia, with its tradition of baroque labor relations, the developments in a public sector strike last week were swift and unusual. In a one-day burst of activity, 40,000 government employees voted to reject the province’s “final” offer of a 6.5-per-cent wage increase. Then they went back to work, ending a six-day strike. The ferries were running unimpeded and the liquor stores were open again, but the strike was still on even if the picket lines were down for a few days. As Premier William Bennett and the trade unionists themselves are discovering, it is a confrontation of shifting tactics played out on several levels.

At its simplest, the conflict is between an administration facing a deficit of $730 million this year and a public service union unwise enough to settle during its last negotiations for a contract (three years ago at eight per cent a year) well below the inflation rate. Now, by an accident of timing, the two opponents are joined in the first test of the federal government’s not so voluntary program of wage restraints. The province’s offer of a 6.5-per-cent increase in the first year of a contract and five per cent in the second closely parallels Ottawa’s Six-Five Solution for its own employees. But the offer presented the B.C. Government Employees Union (BCGEU) and its general secretary, John Fryer, with a problem. Public sector strikes in a time of deepening recession and unemployment—with polls showing most Canadians favoring wage and

price controls—meant that the union had to find ways of winning public support for a more generous settlement. It got an early break when the provincial labor relations board ruled that BCGEU members could picket B.C. Ferry terminals, stopping service between the mainland and Vancouver Island as the nonstriking ferry workers respected their picket lines. The cause won, the union immediately lifted the pickets, forestalling any government move to keep the ferries running.

Bennett himself gave the union its next opportunity to win a tactical victory when he effectively challenged it to give its members a chance to vote on the government’s wage offer. “If I ever got a chance to run an election like that, I would win every seat,” grumbled Bennett later, after a union-conducted vote showed that 93 per cent of the BCGEU membership supported its position.

Bennett had good reason to be testy. Not only is he fighting Ottawa’s battles by proxy, but the

federal government’s difficulties with its own program make it harder for any government to sell restraint. For one thing, it was revealed last week that the Six-Five guidelines do not apply to excise taxes under Ottawa’s control—on such favorite sources of revenue as beer, wine, spirits and cigarettes. The prices of those goods will be increased by 15 per cent on Sept. 1. That disclosure was followed by an announcement from federal Transport Minister Jean-Luc Pepin that major Canadian air and rail prices and wages would be held to a six-percent increase. Then, he was confronted by reporters with news that Air Canada and CN Rail may be forced to lay off as many as 7,000 employees because their revenues have dropped so sharply. In a reaction likely to upset unionists in British Columbia and elsewhere, Pepin declared, “There’s no doubt that to meet those [six and five] objectives corporations will have to lay off people,” adding that such layoffs offer “one way of increasing productivity.”

But for Bennett, the week’s troubles did not end with that. Public attention has concentrated on the strike by government employees, but it is not the only serious labor dispute in the province. Most of British Columbia’s 50,000 members of building trade unions are either locked out or on strike, affecting projects essential to the province’s fu-

ture—and the Social Credit’s chances of re-election. Work has stopped on railway tunnels vital to a hugemining project in the Peace River country, scheduled to begin delivering coal to Japan late next year; work on a domed stadium booked for the 1983 Grey Cup still has not been finished; and a rapid transit system for Vancouver has been left in limbo. And—as a further embarrassment-late in the week a labor arbitration board awarded 1,400 staff members of the government-owned B.C. Hydro an increase of 15 per cent.

Still, Bennett tried to maintain a lifeas-usual manner throughout the week. He added life to rumors of an imminent provincial election by shuffling a cabinet bruised and faded by ministerial indiscretions. The premier dismissed two political liabilities for his administration: Tourism Minister Pat Jordan, who had a whole string of assistants quit on her—some of them because they were tired of carrying her cigarettes and lipstick; and Consumer and Corporate Affairs Minister Peter Hyndman. Hyndman’s short cabinet career was ruined by revelations about his taste for fine wines, good food and a vacation trip to Arizona—all at government expense. Hyndman was only 39 when he became a cabinet minister early in 1981. He intends to stay on as a back-bencher, determined to fight his way back into power and position. But for the moment he is a young politician with a brilliant future behind him.

Ten of the 19 members of cabinet did not move to new jobs, and with only three newcomers the government has largely the same familiar look. Three of the changes had a special significance. Robert McClelland moved from Energy to Labor; William Vander Zalm exchanged Municipal Affairs for Education; and James Chabot gave up Housing to become provincial secretary. All are tough, abrasive defenders of government policy and they are moving into ministries where they are likely to provoke confrontations—or use their heightened visibility to put the government’s case in a quick election.* They will not, however, be able to stump the province by asking for a mandate to show once again who runs British Columbia, the elected politicians or the unions. “We have chosen to stand up and fight, but we are doing our best not to give the government a reason to call an election,” said John Fryer. “If there’s an election we will all go back to work.” Now it is up to Bennett to decide if the Six-Five Solution remains a bargaining position or becomes an Ottawa-inspired slogan on which to base a fight for his political future.

*In Alberta political insiders are also predicting a snap election to be called for sometime this fall by Premier Peter Lougheed.