Considering the anger that produced it, last week’s one-day general strike in British Columbia
was an almost tranquil affair. The buses did not run. Schools, libraries and liquor stores were closed. Garbage lay uncollected. The fleet of ferries that connects Vancouver Island and other coastal communities with the mainland remained in dock. And sawmills and
pulp mills ground to a halt. But with no rallies or mass picketing, the walkout by as many as 300,000 workers protesting a new provincial labor bill seemed at times more like a public holiday than a day of protest. Indeed, many British Columbians simply treated the Monday walkout as an opportunity to take a three-day weekend.
But if the public appeared indifferent, the province’s Social Credit government was anything but. Premier William Vander Zalm promised to forge ahead with Bill 19, the disputed Industrial Relations Reform Act, in spite of the labor protest. And just hours after the first pickets went up, Attorney General Brian Smith filed a severely worded writ in B.C. Supreme Court seeking an injunction to halt further work stoppages until Bill 19 is passed. The wording of the document closely resembled a section of the federal Criminal Code dealing with sedition—
the overthrow of the government by unlawful means. “That is not high political protest,” Smith said of the strike. “That is an illegal conspiracy.” Labor leaders and opposition politicians immediately condemned the writ as a draconian assault on the right of freedom of speech and assembly. In his application to the court on behalf of the 26,000-member Hospital Employ-
ees’ Union, one of the defendants in the writ, former B.C. Supreme Court judge Thomas Berger, called it “an assault on fundamental freedoms so complete that it ought not to be countenanced in a free and democratic society.” And crit-
ics predicted trouble if the government did not change its hard-line stance on the bill. Said New Democratic Party MLA Colin Gabelmann:
“They’re going to wreak years of havoc if they proceed with this.”
The increasingly bitter tone of the conflict was grim news for Vander Zalm. When he was elected premier eight months ago, he promised an end to the confrontational style that characterized the 11-year ten-
ure of former premier William Bennett. Stability, Vander Zalm said, was essential to attracting capital investment and reviving the province’s economy.
But the fight over Bill 19, which aimed to promote labor peace by giving the government sweeping powers to intervene in labor disputes, appears to have had the opposite effect. Already, it has reinforced the province’s reputation for labor unrest—even though B.C. government statistics show that 95 per cent of all contracts are settled without work stoppages, and wage increases last year averaged only 1.5 per cent. Donald Saunders, chairman of Forest Industrial Relations Ltd., which bargains with unions for a number of forestry companies, said that the one-day strike cost the industry $32 million in lost revenues—but much more in terms of credibility. Added James Matkin, president of the Business Council of British Columbia: “We’re talking millions of dollars in direct losses and an intangible loss to our reputation as a secure supplier.”
The effect of the dispute on Vander Zalm’s political standing was harder to measure. His government was elected last October with 49 per cent of the vote. But a provincewide poll conducted for The Vancouver Sun by independent Marktrend Marketing Research five days before the strike showed that 54 per cent of those surveyed were dissatisfied with the government’s performance, while 42 per cent were satisfied. The same poll showed that while opponents of the general strike slightly outnumbered supporters of the action, 42 per cent were against Bill 19 and just 27 per cent were in favor. Said Les Storey, president of United Communications Research Inc., another private Vancouver polling company: “While the public says labor has enjoyed too much power, they’re very much against confrontation
in B.C. Vander Zalm’s style is directly responsible for his decline in popularity.” At the heart of the controversy is a sweeping reform of the province’s labor laws. Introduced on April 2, Bill 19 originally proposed to give the new industrial relations commissioner, Ed Peck, extraordinary powers to end labor disputes that he considered harmful to the
public interest. The commissioner would have the
option of arranging a settlement through binding
arbitration or appointing a mediator acting under his guidance. Critics say those powers, among others, would undermine the process of free collective bargaining. And they accused the Socred government of trying to deunionize the province.
A second piece of legislation, Bill 20, would give teachers the long-sought right to strike but require them to organize unions at the local level and would end compulsory membership in the influential B.C. Teachers Federation. Critics said the result would be to emasculate the federation and ultimately weaken teachers’ bargaining power.
After labor protests, the government last month tabled 48 amendments to Bill 19. The changes would transfer some of Peck’s proposed new powers to the provincial labor minister and the legislature. The government also removed several other provisions that labor found objectionable, including the right of employers at unionized companies to hire nonunion apprentices and the right of unorganized workers hired during a strike to vote on contract offers. But the revised bill would still make it easier for employers whose workers are unionized to set up nonunion subsidiaries and would restrict a union’s right to discipline workers who refuse to go on strike.
Labor’s response to the bill has been strong but restrained. The low-key tone of last week’s strike contrasted sharply with the angry rallies and protests staged in 1983, when nearly 40,000 people marched into the streets to protest Bennett’s economic restraint program. But the government’s court action seemed certain to exacerbate the conflict. Late last week, in an apparent attempt to distance himself from the controversy, Vander Zalm said the Supreme Court writ had been Smith’s idea. A second writ filed with the court used much less volatile language than the first. It seeks a temporary injunction against illegal strikes until the original writ goes to trial.
Although the unions said that they plan no more general strikes, their campaign of noncooperation will continue. That includes a ban on overtime, working-to-rule by adhering to the letter of contracts and a refusal to obey the provisions of Bill 19 when it is enacted later this month. Meanwhile, most teachers—who struck for a day last month—have refused to participate in extracurricular activities for the province’s 500,000 students. Given the mood on both sides after last week, Canada’s most politically polarized province seemed destined for yet another summer of discontent.
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