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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 16, Number 6, May/June 2004

Standing up for what's right

by Peter Owens

On Wednesday, April 28, 2004, the B.C. Liberal government introduced legislation to send striking members of the Hospital Employees’ Union back to work with an imposed contract. The imposed contract not only cut their pay but also made the cuts retroactive to April 1 and provided no cap on the number of HEU jobs the government could privatize and contract out. At a rally at noon the next day, the HEU declared that it would not return to work and its picket lines would become protest lines.

By Friday evening, the BCTF Executive Committee, after receiving input from local leaders through previously scheduled zone meetings, decided that teachers would support the HEU members in their political protest against the government’s action. Teachers would take a stand against the unjust legislation that imposed more privatization and retroactive wage cuts on the lowest-paid healthcare workers. Teachers would be out until either Bill 37 was repealed or the HEU decided to end its political protest. The BCTF was one of many unions, both private- and public-sector, that declared support for the HEU in its challenge of the legislation.

The government announced that there would be no negotiations as long as what it characterized as an "illegal strike" was taking place. Both the Labour Relations Board and the B.C. Supreme Court were busy on Saturday and Sunday issuing orders against unions planning actions to support the HEU.

However, on the verge of provincial shutdown, the B.C. Liberals agreed to remove the retroactive aspect of the pay cut it had imposed on HEU members. The government also agreed to cap the number of jobs privatized at 400 in the first year and 200 in the second year. Severance provisions were enhanced with an additional $25 million. The HEU leaders and the leaders of the B.C. Federation of Labour agreed to ask workers to return to work.

The B.C. Liberals, with 75 of 79 seats in the legislature, have not had to back down very often, but there have been a few examples. Faced with solid opposition, they backed down on the privatization of the Coquihalla Highway and the sell-off of liquor stores. They also backed down on the sale of the Roberts Banks portion of B.C. Rail (because of a police investigation). Although they promised to back down on the number of elected college councillors, they have not yet done so.

The teachers of B.C. played an important role in supporting the HEU and putting pressure on the government. In passing Bill 37, the government sank to a new low in the ongoing attack on working people, families, and those in need. As teachers, we took our rightful place, standing with the healthcare workers to defend public services and bargaining rights. We can be proud of the strength and resolve demonstrated by every single local and by our members all over the province.

Privatized healthcare can not deliver benefits other than to investors. The Americans spend 50% more per capita on healthcare than Canadians. However, more than 40 million Americans are without medical coverage, and medical expenses are the number one cause of family bankruptcy in the U.S. When Roy Romanow was studying healthcare in Canada, he repeatedly asked for evidence supporting privatization. None was ever presented. The B.C. Liberals do not have a mandate to privatize healthcare; indeed, before the last election, they promised not to.

We will endure more dark days before the term of this government ends. We are dealing with a government intent on opening up public services to for-profit privateers and pushing those who defend healthcare and public education out of the way.

But teachers are more united than ever before. The solidarity shown by BCTF members is a shining example for working people and for the communities of B.C.

The next provincial election is May 17, 2005. This government has shown that more than our public education system is at stake. Our communities, the nature of our society, and our future are at stake.

Peter Owens is an assistant director in the BCTF Communications and Campaigns Division and editor of Teacher newsmagazine.

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