The “forgotten struggle” and the race for the BCFed leadership

by Wael Afifi, Unifor Local 2025 Vice President, Human Rights

bcfedIn this province, the daily services in the K-12, post-secondary, health and community social services sectors as well as the provincial public service and Crown corporations and agencies are provided by approximately 316,000 public sector unionized employees. They also represent slightly over 60% of the BC Federation of Labour membership (which according to the Federation’s website is close to half a million).

Labour representatives from across the province will gather at the upcoming BCFED Convention and these delegates will determine who will be at the helm of the BC Labour movement. As of early November, there are only two declared candidates in a race that didn’t arouse –at least so far- the kind of passion, deep thoughtful debates, and level of activists’ engagement seen earlier this year prior to, and during, the national Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) Convention in Montreal last May, particularly by all those who were inspired by the Take Back the CLC movement.

Workers versus Liberals
The November BCFED election comes in the midst of the ongoing strict wage controls measures adopted by the BC Liberal government throughout the most recent bargaining round which, like all its predecessors, is tightly coordinated and controlled by the Ministry of Finance’s  Public Sector Employers’ Council (or PSEC) Secretariat through its guideline strict plan also known as the “2014 Economic Stability Mandate”.

The latest two bargaining rounds may have had different names, such as the “2012 Cooperative Gains Mandate” and the “2010 Net Zero Mandate”; however, they all -including this 2014 Economic Stability mandate- espouse “protecting the province’s fiscal plan” as a major key goal.

The details of each one of these mandates are available online, but in a nutshell, they are all about controlling spending and they amount to legislated wage increases that fall short of the BC Consumer Price Index. As a matter of fact, it is fair to say that unionized public sector employees haven’t been able to catch up with the increases in their cost of living since the expiry of the 2006-2010 bargaining mandate which aimed at providing stability and labour peace prior to -and throughout- the 2010 winter Olympics.

bc teachers strikeIf we throw into this mix the fact that the Convention also comes shortly after the end of the longest teachers’ strike in BC History, one would imagine that reshaping this bargaining structure which is hurting unionized employees in the public sector would take center stage at the convention and would quickly become a fairly high priority for the two contenders.

Instead, the restructuring of public sector bargaining has become the “forgotten struggle” in the politics of the BC labour movement as evident in the priorities and election commitments of both candidates who opted to shy away from highlighting the need to put any effort or resources to prepare for the fight needed to loosen government’s tight grip on wages through a return to less constrained collective bargaining mechanics for public sector workers in this province.

The Forgotten Struggle
The term “forgotten struggle” doesn’t mean that this is an accidental or a non-intentional oversight. As a matter of fact, there is, in my view, more than one reason that could explain why this particular issue isn’t anywhere to be seen on the two candidates’ radar screen.

Perhaps chief among these reasons is the history behind the creation of the PSEC which was established back in 1993 under an NDP government as a way of cementing the recommendations of the Korbin Commission’s Final Report. As a result, many public sector union leaders –with the exception of the BCTF which still calls for a return to local bargaining- seem to view any discussion about restructuring as a public criticism of the NDP which -as many of us know- is frowned upon in many labour union circles not only in this province but throughout the country.

Another reason might be rooted in the belief that a total re-structure is an unrealistic goal. Unfortunately, more and more are accepting this notion because the leadership has never signalled that fighting for a large scale ambitious change is even an option. And as a result, the rank and file start to internalize that any calls for restructuring might be futile.

As such, there are only 2 resolutions (out of 100 submitted in the general resolution section of the Convention) that touch upon –albeit slightly- on the issue. The first one submitted by Burnaby teachers is calling for a “coordination between affiliates” in order to prevent government from targeting a particular affiliate (GE- 39). The second, perhaps a more ambitious resolution, submitted by the PEA, is also calling for “a coordinated approach” to build solidarity during the next round of bargaining but it goes further, eyeing the larger picture “to enable a return to true collective bargaining” (GE -40).

true leadership means replacing the strategy of building a base angry enough to defeat the Liberals with a more progressive vision that understands the importance of building an independent labour movement strong enough to challenge any government’s actions that might pose a threat to the interests of working people.

A third reason that could explain why this struggle is forgotten at the top leadership level might be explained by a perceived need to keep the rank and file unhappy with the Liberals and their strict mandates in order to increase the chances of mobilizing this base to elect a friendlier NDP government. However, such views don’t seem to realize that true leadership means replacing the strategy of building a base angry enough to defeat the Liberals with a more progressive vision that understands the importance of building an independent labour movement strong enough to challenge any government’s actions that might pose a threat to the interests of working people.

While there might be other reasons to explain why public sector bargaining structure has become the “forgotten struggle” one can only hope that the debates at the Convention will tackle such an important issue and will go beyond Lanzinger’s “good jobs, safe work, and a Federation that speaks for everyone” and Hockin’s “initiatives that will assist the BC NDP with building public support while in opposition, to ensure we achieve an NDP Government in 2017.”

After all, a debate involving a revival of the “forgotten struggle” will not only energize an uninspiring race but will also assist in building an engaged, more militant, labour movement.

Note: references available upon request for every quote and for most of the information outlined in this article.

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