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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 12, Number 4, Jan./Feb. 2000

The Solidarity Strike of 1983

by Ken Novakowski

It was pouring rain that miserable evening of November 10, 1983 as we ran from our cars to the warmth of the Japanese restaurant on Powell Street in Vancouver. I was a member of the BCTF Bargaining staff and was joining the local presidents of Surrey and Coquitlam and other teachers for dinner to debrief on the most significant week of BCTF history in our lifetime. We, the BCTF, had just pulled off a province-wide strike of members over three days as part of a larger Operation Solidarity Action. These were heady times for teachers, for the labour movement, and for the broad coalition that had come together that summer to oppose the most significant assault on human, social, and workers’ rights and the social-safety net that had been seen in Canada to that point.

A year earlier, in February of 1982, teachers in a province-wide vote had rejected asking government for the right to strike as a means of resolving bargaining disputes. We didn’t have full bargaining rights at the time and were pushing hard to get the right to negotiate all terms and conditions of our employment. Our contracts, negotiated locally, included primarily only what boards had been required to negotiate–salaries and bonuses. Some contracts did include other matters as a result of the BCTF campaign to expand the scope of bargaining in the fall of 1981, and a few locals had separate working and learning conditions contracts. But if contracts were not negotiated by November 15 of each year, the unresolved salary and bonus matters went to binding arbitration. This meant that other bargaining units, usually the IWA (International Woodworkers of America), set the pattern for settlements, often through strike action, and we followed along through arbitration. The majority of teachers in February of 1982 seemed satisfied with this process and did not want the BCTF to request that government grant us the right to strike.

Oh what a difference a year makes! Within a week of our failed referendum, Premier Bill Bennett introduced a major "restraint" program that heralded the beginning of years of cuts to education funding and the establishment of the Compensation Stabilization Program–a wage-control program to cut back salaries in the public sector. The economy was in a recession and government’s response was to blame public-sector wage increases and, in particular, teacher salaries. The BCTF joined with CUPE (Canadian Union of Public Employees), other unions and students to form DESC, the Defend Education Service Coalition. The Federation worked with locals to organize opposition to the cutbacks and the centralization taking place in education, often with the support of parent groups and school trustees.

Then came the summer of 1983. On May 5, 1983, there had been a provincial election that saw the Social Credit government of Bill Bennett returned for another term. On July 7, 1983 the provincial government introduced a legislative package of 26 bills that had not been a part of their election campaign. Yet, as a package, the proposals constituted a radical change in direction for the economic and social policy of the province.

One of the pieces of legislation aimed at the public sector, including teachers, was Bill 3, which allowed employers to layoff employees without cause. To that point in time, teachers in B.C. with a continuing contract had never faced layoff. The student population in public schools was increasing and more teachers were being hired each year. The legislative package coupled with the cutbacks from the restraint program meant teachers would be laid off, class sizes would increase, and Bill 3 put teachers at the mercy of the employer.

Other public-sector bargaining units that had full bargaining rights had negotiated seniority provisions. Teachers had no seniority or severance provisions in their agreements.

The response of the labour movement and social-action community was swift. Within weeks of the legislative assault by government, the B.C. Federation of Labour called a meeting of all unions in B.C., affiliated and non-affiliated, to a founding conference of Operation Solidarity, a united front of labour to oppose the legislative package and to pressure government to withdraw it. Community groups including human rights, womens’ rights, anti-poverty, tenants’ rights, students, seniors, and environmental joined together in a Solidarity Coalition. Never before in the memory of most had labour and community united so actively around a common agenda in this province. By the end of August, 1983, 50,000 people attended a protest rally at Empire Stadium and by the middle of October, 80,000 people were marching in protest on the streets of Vancouver, past the assembled convention of the Social Credit party.

The B.C. Government Employees’ Union was out on a legal strike for a collective agreement. Labour’s strategy (Operation Solidarity) had become one of joining the striking government employees in stages until the whole province was out. The objective was to get government to withdraw its legislative package.

The BCTF had been trying, in the meantime, to negotiate an exemption to Bill 3 by trying to get a school board to agree to a contract with its teachers that would provide for seniority and severance in the event of layoff. And in a province-wide vote, taken at meetings in locals all across B.C., teachers voted by a margin of 60% to give the BCTF Executive Committee the authority to join in the Solidarity Strike.

When determined efforts by the BCTF to obtain an exemption agreement with a school board failed, President Larry Kuehn on Monday, November 7, 1983 asked B.C. teachers to leave their classrooms and set up picket lines around the public schools and work sites throughout the province. Other education workers would be joining teachers on November 8 and a further escalation was planned for November 14. Teachers overwhelmingly heeded the call of their leadership and respected the democratic decision of the majority. It was a transformative experience for teachers. It was a political act–a protest action, taken as part of a broader labour strategy. It was only our second province-wide strike action and our first experience with picket lines.

Over the long weekend of November 11—13, 1983, the Operation Solidarity leadership negotiated an end to the job action with the Social Credit government. Controversy remains to this day about the end of the solidarity action. The BCGEU got their settlement. Operation Solidarity carried on for a short time after the strike and the solidarity coalition continued the fight against the legislation that was going ahead.

But, collectively, teachers never looked back. The following year, the AGM adopted a policy to respect the picket lines of other workers, including those of our CUPE co-workers if they should ever take strike action to obtain an agreement with their school board. And, following the conclusion of the Solidarity Strike, teachers in every local of the province negotiated a seniority/severance agreement with their school board. Our bargaining rights had expanded and our appetite for full bargaining rights whetted. We continued to vigourously oppose cutbacks to education funding and fight wage controls. We would move forward together from the experience of 1983 towards full collective-bargaining rights, including the right to strike, a short four years into the future.

Ken Novakowski is the BCTF’s Executive Director.