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After the Deal

Foes of the Liberal government weigh the pain, costs and opportunities created by a bruising labour dispute and a general strike that wasn't

David Beers 3 May 2004TheTyee.ca

David Beers is the founding editor of The Tyee and serves as current editor-in-chief.

He started the publication in 2003 as an experiment in new ways of doing online journalism in the public interest, including solutions-focused reporting, crowd-funded support and a humane work culture. He loves what The Tyee has become thanks to amazing colleagues and readers.

He has lived in Vancouver since 1991. Before The Tyee he was a senior editor at Mother Jones Magazine and the Vancouver Sun, and his writing has appeared in many U.S. and Canadian outlets. He is an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia's graduate school of journalism.

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It was as if someone pulled the emergency brake on a fast moving train. The day after an eleventh hour deal averted a general strike, members of the HEU and other unions picked themselves up, feeling bruised and angry not only at the government but their leaders who negotiated the settlement.

But those leaders and other observers argue that the settlement made strategic sense, preventing a wreck that would have cost labour millions of dollars in fines and damaged its public support. As a result, they say, the growing opposition to the Liberal government is well positioned to remain on track and pick up steam for next year's election.

"Basically, everybody feels they've been screwed by the union, and that's putting it lightly," Karen Ferraro, a nutrition aide for 20 years, told the Tyee at St. Paul's Hospital in Vancouver on Monday. The negotiated cap on jobs contracted out, 600 over the next two years, failed to impress Ferraro: "That's not including the 8,000 they've already laid off."

Helen Chan, who works in health records at the hospital, echoed Ferraro and many fellow workers, saying she was feeling "upset, betrayed, disappointed, helpless, and angry at both the union and the government."

"It's understandable, the anger, but it is misplaced," said BC Federation President Jim Sinclair, who helped negotiate the deal, which included the 15 percent cut in wages specified by Bill 37, but dropped a retroactive pay cut in the bill while adding a severance package of $25 million for laid off workers. "What the government was saying was we'll take your money and fire you as well, a double insult," said Sinclair.

"Labour stepped up to the plate," and made the best deal under the circumstances, Sinclair said. "This was about stopping the bleeding so that you can be there the next time to fight."

General strike 'dicey' politics

Had a general strike been called, the HEU would have faced over $400,000 a day in fines, given a Supreme Court ruling that the union was in contempt of court for not returning when ordered by the legislature. And had unions been successful in bringing business as usual to a halt in the province, public sentiment may have quickly soured towards their cause, according to Evi Mustel, whose firm does a lot of polling around labour and health care issues.

"The heavy-handedness of the government" in the dispute swung public sympathy towards the HEU, Mustel said. But a general strike might have reversed the momentum. "When people start to get really inconvenienced, that's where it starts to be a little dicey," says Mustel. "Maybe one day, people would have
tolerated it. But anything beyond that, especially kids being out of school, and transit being down, my sense would be the public wouldn't be tolerant of that for too long."

"I don't think that anyone is happy," said BC Teachers Federation president Neil Worboys, who says the union negotators were in tough position. "This was not collective bargaining. This was a situation where the union was doing the best they could to make sure the least harm was done, stop the flow of unfettered privatization in the health care system, and cap lay-offs over the next two years."

Members of the BCTF were poised to shut down schools had the general strike gone forward. Like the HEU, they had seen "our agreement ripped up", said Worboys. "We mobilized 42,000 teachers over the weekend, not an easy thing to do, and were prepared to protest if there was no agreement acceptable to the HEU."

Worboys said the way the dispute played out "galvanized the labour movement," adding, "our members are strengthened by what has happened and it stands us in good stead as we continue."

Did Liberals bumble?

The president of CUPE BC, Barry O'Neill, whose members also were ready to support a general strike, called the agreement "the very best of a bad situation" and suggested the Liberal government created the crisis on purpose. "They are down dramatically in the polls and what you do is deflect responsibility of running the province on to someone else, pick on who in the public's eyes are most vulnerable and controversial." But the strategy has backfired, he said, because "people have woken up to this game; what was exposed here was government's ruthlessness."

How to regroup and build on that shift in public emotions is the next concern among labour activists and political foes of the Campbell government.

"My hope is that people will direct their anger where it needs to be directed - towards Gordon Campbell and the Liberals," NDP Leader Carole James told The Tyee. Her party has seen a surge in membership over the past few weeks, sources say, though the NDP did not share specific numbers.

"My hope is that people will get involved in community groups, continue to protest even though action is ended, support other groups, and encourage people to join the party, encourage people who are thinking about running," said James. "I hope people pull together and fight the good fight on May 17, 2005."

While many observers, including Vaughn Palmer in today's Vancouver Sun, have portrayed the Liberals as bumblers in handling the dispute, others see the government playing a strong hand shrewdly.

"Far from misjudging the results of their brutal legislation ordering HEU back to work, I believe that the Liberals knew exactly what they were doing," said Michael Fellman, an SFU history professor and political commentator. "The alternative, binding arbitration, which they settled for with the ferry workers, usually leads to contracts of more or less the status quo, based on previous and comparative contracts. The Liberals were more ambitious this time--they wanted a major roll back. So they added the wage pay back and the total lack of a cap for outsourcing jobs, along with the wage rollback they really wanted, knowing that they would one, provoke a major uprising, and two, create a fallback position where they would appear reasonable, by subtracting the cap and payback provisions, keeping the whole rollback."

More bargaining ahead

That sets the stage for the next many rounds of bargaining with public sector unions, said Fellman. "The Liberals thumped a weak, mainly woman's union of unskilled labourers, and served notice to CUPE and the other bigger and stronger public sector unions that rollbacks were now the order of the day. They reckoned that they had no labour votes at any event, and that the general public would approve of their 'tough' stance come re-election time."

"They were willing to play the most brutal politics," continues Fellman, "not believing, after all in collective bargaining in the public sector, and serving their larger agenda of slashing public services while cutting taxes."

The hardball tactics of the Liberals presented union negotiators with a nasty range of risks, figures Fellman. "You cannot blame Sinclair--he must keep the overall interests of unions uppermost in his mind, and jail terms for HEU workers, and chaos in the province would blow up in labour's faces."

At St. Paul's hospital, workers were still wrestling with raised emotions and expectations, and the big wage cuts their leaders were forced to negotiate. "We're just the first union to be attacked. If they take us down successfully, other unions will be next," said one worker who asked not to be identified.

"I think a lot of people are discouraged by the deal," said phlebotomist Gizelle Roussy. "We deal with people's lives everyday. We take on a lot. I don't think we're overpaid. We just want to make a difference. Who's going to provide that care? If you pay peanuts, you're going to get monkeys."

David Beers is editor of The Tyee. Natasha Barsotti and Dee Hon are on staff.  [Tyee]

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