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(DV) Petersen: The Struggle to Restore the Dignity of Labor







The Struggle to Restore the Dignity of Labor
by Kim Petersen
October 22, 2005

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In some parts of the developing world, workers and the people have faced down the corporatist program (for example, Argentina, Bolivia, and Venezuela) that disempowers the masses of people and exacerbates the hideous wealth gap in capitalist societies. In the egregiously named Canadian province of British Columbia (BC), an “illegal” strike had been ongoing that has importance for all people concerned in the fight against further diminishment of worker’s rights -- especially under the cudgel of inegalitarian hacks imposing the hideous ideology of neoliberalism. 

BC is a province that in recent times swings between the right wing and a political entity called the New Democratic Party (NDP) that dissembles as the left wing. In the new millennium, the right-wing Liberal Party engineered an electoral victory partially based on a judicially discredited attempt to tarnish the then NDP premier of BC, Glen Clark. The Liberal leader Gordon Campbell, a sycophant of the George Bush administration in the US, quickly set about pursuing his party’s neoliberal agenda of cutting income tax and privatizing government services.  

It is, however, a scathing attack on the worker that has been a centerpiece of the Campbell agenda. The minimum wage was slashed by $2 an hour [1], child labor standards were appallingly slackened [2], and the union movement was targeted. Campbell has all but eradicated collective bargaining in the government’s dealings with its workers. Insofar as the government sets the tone for the private sector in its dealings with its workers, the effect on labor has been catastrophic. In 2004, Campbell imposed a settlement on the Hospital Employees Union (HEU) that rolled back wages 15 percent retroactively and allowed for some privatization. [3] 

Workers across BC were walking off the job in solidarity with their fellow HEU workers. A general strike was looming on the labor horizon. As the pressure was rising on the government, the HEU leaders reached a suspect backroom deal that effectively stalled a labor showdown with the BC government. 

At that time, one HEU leader, Ken Robinson, lamented, “The government has learned a great lesson. If they pass a really bad bill against workers, all they have to do is take out a little of the worst part and then they can get it passed.” [4] 

The current standoff is between the BC Teachers Federation (BCTF) and the Campbell government. The government enacted Bill 12, which freezes teacher salaries for two years and increases teacher workload and class sizes. [5] Campbell’s government passed legislation that determines teachers to be “essential services”; therefore, teachers are not legally permitted to strike. Nonetheless, 38,000 union teachers were manning the picket lines.  

Campbell has attempted to depict the teachers as lawbreakers. Said he, “We don't get to obey the laws we like and disobey the laws we don't like.” 

The ministry of the Attorney General has appointed a special prosecutor to review the need for criminal contempt charges. BC Supreme Court Justice Brenda Brown ordered the BCTF not to distribute strike pay. [6] But the “illegality” of the situation has not frightened the members of the BCTF or other supporters. Court order notwithstanding, Saskatchewan teachers in a show of solidarity contributed $24,000 to their striking colleagues. [7] 

On 18 October, unionized municipal workers and civil servants rallied at the Parliament Buildings in Victoria “in a noisy, raucous demonstration that paralysed Victoria's downtown and disrupted bus service and government services for much of the day.” [8] 

BC Federation of Labour Secretary-Treasurer Angela Shira exclaimed, “It's hard to believe that twenty-first century democratic governments still don't understand that people don't give up their rights without a fight.” 

The corporate media, without surprise, lambasted unions and their workers for defying the law. The Globe and Mail whined, “It was bad enough when public-school teachers in British Columbia thumbed their noses at the law and continued an illegal strike. Now the Canadian Union of Public Employees and other unionists in both the public and private sector have joined the teachers in their defiance.” [9] 

The premier and corporate media organs would supposedly have people believe that all laws are just and good. Otherwise why would people be expected to obey them without question? Yet history, both past and recent, is rife with examples of iniquitous laws. For instance the anti-Jewish Nuremberg Laws enacted in Nazi Germany [10], or the Absentee Property Law of the settler state Israel which legalizes the theft of Palestinian land. [11] Clearly, the law is an abstraction that must not unquestioningly compel obedience. Then there is the unsettled matter of the historical monster land grab by ancestral settler Canadians that is maintained by the present generation of Canadians, nowhere more so than in BC.  

Jerry West astutely noted the Liberal government’s own lack of respect for the law: 

On a purely legal ground, Canada is a member of the International Labour Organization of the United Nations. Over the past three years, the ILO has condemned the Campbell government nine times for contravening labour standards that Canada is obligated to uphold. This included condemnation of legislated contracts. So, it can be argued that calling an action illegal which is an action against a law which in itself may be illegal is somewhat of a disingenuous enterprise.  

Perhaps before it gets too deep into the legal swamp with the teachers, the B.C. government might want to examine its own actions in light of the international agreements it is pledged to honour. Clearly its labelling of the teachers' job action as illegal is an act of pure hypocrisy. [12] 

To approach the BC teachers’ strike purely from a position of legality is folly. Surely, morality eclipses legality in importance. It does according to the scale commonly used in psychological studies of morality. The moral psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg [13] placed law and order at stage four in conventional morality. To attain the highest post-conventional level of moral development, one had to transcend legality and consider social contract, individual rights, and universal principles. 

Egalitarianism is a lofty principle that embodies universality. It is a principle that is ideologically abandoned by the Campbell regime. Campbell has gutted the social fabric of BC to help pay for his generous income tax cuts that primarily benefit the already well-to-do and has maligned the dignity of labor. There is little moral leg to stand on.  

Although the BC government said it would remain steadfast against the BCTF, the outcome signals a weakening in that resolve. Cognizant of polling results showing support for the teachers, the government appointed mediator Vince Ready and readily accepted his recommendations that touched on all the BCTF’s key concerns, including wages, class sizes, and funding of education. A door, however, was left open for the government to shirk any deal. 

Otherwise, the mediator’s report is a backdown for the BC government. Labor Minister Mike de Jong said, “I've conveyed in writing to Mr. Ready the government's unconditional acceptance of his recommendations.” Acceptance, however, does not imply changes in teaching conditions. Aware of this, the BCTF has made its acceptance conditional on a written guarantee that the government will amend the School Act with specific limits on class sizes. De Jong is only promising to “consult” as required by the mediator’s report.  

It is said that the government learns its lessons. This time the workers appeared to have taught the government a new lesson: workers will not allow their rights or dignity to be legislated and threatened away. 

As West noted, “This is not just a fight for workers, it is a fight for all of us … who wish a democracy responsive to the people rather than rule by corporate flunkies.” 

Kim Petersen, Co-Editor of Dissident Voice, lives in the traditional Mi'kmaq homeland colonially designated Nova Scotia, Canada. He can be reached at: 

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[1] Jim Sinclair, “Instead of Blaming the Labour Movement for Gordon Campbell's Woes, Perhaps the Fraser Institute Should Look in the Mirror,” BC Federation of Labour, April 21, 2005.  

[2] Gina Whitfield, “Globalisation comes home to roost: Child labour in Campbell’s B.C.,” Seven Oaks, 21 February 2004. 

[3] Roger Annis, “Drawing the lessons of the HEU strike,” Seven Oaks, 10 May 2004. 

[4] Quoted in ibid. 

[5] John Malcolmson, “Why Teachers Are Primed to Strike,” The Tyee, 26 September 2005. Teachers have experienced a drop in earning power due to inflation and an increase in class sizes.  

[6] Tom Fletcher, “Teacher strike pay withheld,” Sooke News Mirror, 19 October 2005. 

[7] “STF sending $24K to B.C. teachers,” CBC News, 19 October 2005. 

[8] Doug Ward and Miro Cernetig, “A day of defiance,” Vancouver Sun, 18 October 2005. 

[9] “The B.C. teachers should obey the lawGlobe and Mail, 19 October 2005. 

Racial policy of Nazi Germany, Wikpedia. Jews were scapegoated for much of the misfortune that beset Germany following World War I. This led to the passing of the "Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honor," forbidding marriage between any Jew and non-Jew. Simultaneously, the "Reich Citizenship Law" was passed decreeing that all Jews were non-citizens without basic citizens' rights. 

[11] Editorial team, “Here to stay: A timeline of Palestine,” in Tony Seed and Gary Zatzman (Eds.) Dossier on Palestine (shunpiking, 2002), p. 51. “This [law] authorizes the theft of the property of a million Palestinians, seized by Israel in 1948.” 

[12] Jerry West, “In B.C., this is a fight for all of us,”, 19 October 2005. 

[13] In a tribute to hypocrisy, Kohlberg happened to be a Zionist.

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