Published in Confrontation (Vancouver), August 2003
May 16, 2003 marked the two-year anniversary of the Campbell government’s election to office in BC. Having crippled NDP representation in the legislature, vested interests have embarked on a determined campaign to wipe out 50 years of social progress. And the Left has been unable to resist this assault.
After 10 years of NDP rule, the Right is privatizing the public sector and enacting various measures to weaken the bargaining power of labour. One of the most vocal groups opposing the government’s agenda has been the Hospital Employees’ Union (HEU), an organization known for its independent stance and willingness to adopt militant industrial tactics, including illegal strike activity. The HEU has been singled out for destruction by the government and private health-care corporations. Notorious Bill 29 tore up collective agreements to allow the privatization of 30,000 HEU jobs.
The HEU, an affiliate of CUPE, has played a major role organizing Community Coalitions across BC to stop the implementation of the government’s plans. Pulling together senior citizens, anti-poverty activists, students, environmentalists and trade unionists, these coalitions have provided a centre of resistance against the Campbell government. Initially, the labour movement supported the coalitions and the Fightback. Resources were donated to organize demonstrations and other events, such as a rally on Feb. 23, 2002 that drew 25,000 people to the provincial legislature.
However it became clear that expressions of solidarity were restricted to certain acceptable boundaries, which fell far short of the tactics necessary to reverse the government’s agenda. No ‘Days of Action’ on the scale of Ontario in the late 1990s occurred. A general strike was advocated by militant sections of the labour movement, but the leadership refused to consider this course of action. A unified, determined response evaded British Columbia’s Left.
The reasons are complex. One important influence involves conflicting strategies internal to the BC NDP. Reduced from power to two seats in the 79-seat legislature, NDP members and leaders are united on the need to rebuild the party. But they are divided on the best means of rebuilding. Some wish to restrict our activity to the electoral arena, allowing the cuts to deepen and ripen the mood for political change.
An opposing viewpoint believes the NDP should be at the forefront of the extra-parliamentary struggle. It is only by embracing the cause of HEU workers, the poor, and other besieged groups that the party can rebuild trust with the disenfranchised, and build up the organization necessary to win the next election. Solidarity must be expressed in both word and deed.
In my opinion, New Democrats should be at the forefront of every strike and demonstration, showing the Canadian people that our party is the agent of social change, both inside and outside the legislative halls of the country.
In 1925, prior to winning re-election to the House of Commons, CCF-NDP founder J.S. ‘Jim’ Woodsworth wrote: “Political power must be based on industrial power.” Sadly, this rule rarely informs the strategy of our movement.
The BC experience since May 2001 offers a valuable lesson for New Democrats and allies across the country: it is not enough to resist vested interests at election time. A strong, participatory organization is needed between elections to secure and defend advances toward socialism.