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Outrage Knits Defiant Unions

At a fiery Island ferry workers' meeting, calls rose for a broadened strike to push Liberals 'over the edge.'

By Quentin Dodd 26 Apr 2004 | TheTyee.ca
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TheTyee.ca

As calls rose for a General Strike in B.C., a glimpse of the seething emotions among labour movement members were on full display at a union-oriented reception held by the B.C. Ferry and Marine Workers' Union (BCFMU) in Courtenay Thursday.

The union's executive was to meet the following day in the Vancouver Island community and the reception was held in the Courtenay Museum, to thank labour-movement supporters for their assistance during the ferry workers strike late last year.

With word spreading through the room that members of the section of the union had issued 72 hours' strike notice, discussion of the possibility of a grassroots-up General Strike was on everyone's lips following news Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) members in school districts would be taking job action - beginning in Victoria but moving north on Vancouver Island - the next morning.

And representatives from the Courtenay Community Action for Justice Coalition encouraged their union colleagues in the room to stand up and be counted in solidarity against the government when they were presented with a cheque from the ferry workers' union for their support during the union's strike in early December.

The catalyst for the raw fury and energy in the room was the quickly-rammed-through legislation by the Liberal government the previous day. It forced privatization on the hospital system and wage and job cuts on the striking Hospital Employees' Union, ordering the personnel back to work and also simultaneously ordered a 15-per-cent rollback in wages - retroactive to April 1. As a result some HEU members - many of them women and single mothers - face refund deductions from their pay cheques totalling hundreds of dollars.

The government's scrapping of the previously-agreed contract with HEU and the imposing of the draconian two-year replacement contract was the final straw for the 75 or so people at the reception. They howled for the government's blood, pointing the finger particularly at Premier Gordon Campbell and his top cabinet colleagues.

'Edge of a precipice'

The packed get-together drew wide representation from the Campbell River, Courtenay and District Labor Council in the Comox Valley, as well as the support of Catherine Bell, Vancouver Island North New Democratic Party candidate in the forthcoming federal election, and other union members.

Under the bright and hot museum display spotlights, the emotions against the government grew heated too.

"When the ferry workers went out, I got the sense that something was happening (in the grassroots labor movement) in the province," said former local Labor Council president Mike Keelan, now active with the action coalition, during the cheque presentation. "That got deflated with the back-to-work legislation. I get the same sense with the HEU (situation). We're at the edge of a precipice and if we stand together, we can defeat these people."

Coalition member Dwayne Bradley spoke of organizing union members who had lost their jobs and bringing together "brothers and sisters" attending the local food bank.

He said round-the-clock picketing of local MLA and cabinet member Stan Hagen's office by coalition members and supporters, on behalf of people being kicked off the welfare rolls, had started to cause the government to "buckle".

"It's continuing to go that way and the thing we need to do," he said, "is to kick them over the edge," added an attendee from the audience finishing his sentence for him.

Ferry workers ready to repay debt

"I had a great sense of hope and this feeling of pride to be on the picket line at St. Joe's (St. Joseph's) Hospital with the HEU and other health-care workers this week," said Bell. "We were on the lines with the ferry workers' back in December, it was a whole lot windier and a heck of a lot chillier (from the government)."

Ferry workers' union president Jacquie Miller told the crowd that she found the support by other union members in December extremely inspiring. So, she said, is the familiar and similar battle by the HEU, so her members had issued strike notice in support of them, to come into effect at 2 p.m. Sunday.

"This is about the government and its attempts to destroy the labor movement and social fabric of B.C.," she said. "We're prepared to do whatever it takes to support our brothers and sisters and fight to assist our own members. I can see the power here too and the courage to continue on, and outsmart the government."

May Day remembrance of Ginger Goodwin

Members and supporters of the Campbell River, Courtenay and District Labor Council have remained outraged with the government and Hagen since just months into the Liberals' current term of office. They still feel they were slapped in the face with the removal of signs from a two-mile section of the new Inland Island Highway naming its Ginger Goodwin Way

The section had been given the name by the previous NDP government, in honour of the miners' union activist who was hunted down, shot and killed by an RCMP agent during the Great Miners' Strike almost 100 years ago. The removal of the signs, later acknowledged to have been ordered by Hagen, was seen as an early sign of vindictiveness by the new government against the labor movement.

Each June, to celebrate Miners' Memorial Day, union representatives lay wreaths on Goodwin's grave in Cumberland Cemetery, and preparations for that are already well under way this year.

Journalist Quentin Dodd lives in Campbell River and contributes frequently to The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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