Operation Solidarity, 1983: An (Almost) B.C. General Strike

What happens when a government adopts the Fraser Institute’s policies wholesale, pushing cutbacks, austerity and a rollback of rights? How does labour leadership respond to widespread discontent with a government— and how does it act to contain this discontent? Team Advantage explores Operation Solidarity, one of the largest political protests in British Columbia’s history.

Historical audio clips are sourced from Common Cause: The Story of the Operation Solidarity Coalition.

Further reading:
Bryan Palmer – Solidarity: The Rise and Fall of an Opposition in British Columbia (1987) (see also Ch. 7 of Palmer’s Marxism and Historical Practice Vol. 1, “British Columbia’s Solidarity: Reformism and the Fight against the Right”)
Thom Quine – How Operation Solidarity Became Operation Soldout (International Socialists, 1985)
William Carroll and R.S. Ratner – Social Democracy, Neo-Conservatism and Hegemonic Crisis in British Columbia (1989)
Leo Panitch and Donald Swartz – Towards Permanent Exceptionalism: Coercion and Consent in Canadian Industrial Relations (1984)
Rod Mickleburgh – On the Line: A History of the British Columbia Labour Movement, Chapter 18: Operation Solidarity. (2018)
Rod Mickleburgh – 1983: The Year BC Citizens and Workers Fought Back (The Tyee, 2018)
Stanley Tromp – The RCMP Thought Solidarity Was a Communist Plot (The Tyee, 2018)
Digital Museums Canada – Solidarity: The Largest Political Protest in British Columbia’s History (timeline, photos, clips and interviews)

A full transcript follows the break.

[bird call]

[intro music begins]

Singer: We are solidarity, there’s an anger we are sharing/

We are solidarity, and we’re taking it to the street…

Kate: The Alberta Advantage is a proud member of the Harbinger Media Network. Check out our partner shows at harbingermedianetwork.com. This independent listener-supported podcast is possible thanks to listeners like you. If you think what we do is important, support us with a monthly donation at patreon.com/albertaadvantage.

Singer: …century, they’ve swept away so callously/

We’ve lost the little help we had, if we’re in trouble, that’s too bad/

It’s time to march with solidarity

[intro music begins fading out]

Kate: Hello, and welcome to The Alberta Advantage. I am your host, Kate Jacobson, and today’s episode is going to be about one of British Columbia’s largest mass mobilizations and the largest general strike in modern history that didn’t quite happen. We are going to be talking today about Operation Solidarity in summer and fall of 1983 in British Columbia, because I guess this isn’t even really a podcast about Alberta anymore, it’s just a podcast about things we find interesting. Joining Team Advantage today, we have Joel —

Joel: Hello, hello.

Kate: Karen —

Karen: Howdy.

Kate: And Patrick.

Patrick: Thanks for having me, and hello from Victoria.

Kate: So, to get us started about what happened in 1983, it’s probably worth taking a bit of a quick look at what happened in British Columbia since the last time we talked about the province. And our last look was a fairly recent episode about Dave Barrett’s NDP government, which governed from 1972 to 1975. And, to sum it up quickly, they basically implemented an impressive number of progressive reforms, but, in their final year, in 1975, they also implemented some sweeping back-to-work legislation to, quote, “resolve” a number of private sector strikes. Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s federal Liberals actually implemented similar changes days later with their Anti-Inflation Act as well as wage and price controls. For some reason, strike-breaking back-to-work legislation did not sufficiently mobilize British Columbians to secure another election win for the NDP. They held on to their vote share in 1975, but, in many races, a combined opposition — so, no Liberal or PC candidates — meant that Social Credit was able to secure more seats. It’s also worth pointing out here that this is a time of great inflation sparked in part by the energy crisis of the ‘70s, and inflation basically means that people’s wages are not keeping up with increasing costs. So, in trying to increase wages through strikes, workers are increasingly finding governments limiting their ability to strike as well as how much they can ask for. So, this is a microcosm of the overall breakdown of the Keynesian welfare state that is happening in the ‘70s. It’s also worth pointing out that the early 1980s are really bad for British Columbia because its economy was based on resource exports — so, you get a recession, and you also get a collapse of prices for raw materials. So, BC’s unemployment rate actually goes from 7% in 1981 to 12% in 1982 and then up to 15% in 1984.

Joel: In power in British Columbia for the next little while is the Social Credit Party headed up by Bill Bennett. If that name seems familiar, it’s because it’s W.A.C. Bennett’s son. W.A.C. — or Wacky, as we like to call him — Bennett had been the Social Credit premier of British Columbia for 20 years, from 1952 until 1972, and now his son is premier after that brief NDP interruption. Wow. I love democracy.

Patrick: Two elections happened between 1975 and the events of Operation Solidarity in 1983. In 1979, Social Credit wins another majority with the NDP gaining some ground in that they increased their share of the popular vote and gained some more seats. There’s another election in May of 1983 and, in labour circles, it was believed that the NDP would win because Social Credit had proved itself really quite unpopular. During this election campaign, however, the big brain trusts of the NDP strategists developed the theory that the election would be won or lost on the votes of about 5% of the electorate that hadn’t made up its mind either way. Yay! Swing voters! What a great group to be aiming for. So, these are the so-called undecideds. Chasing the middle in an effort to get these swing votes, the NDP made themselves look, quote-unquote, “safe” and similar to the conservatives, assuming that their locked-in voters had nowhere else to go. Speaking about whether or not the NDP, if elected, would undo the wage stabilization efforts that Social Credit had brought in, in a commission headed up by Ed Peck, Dave Barrett responded, “Let’s face it — I’ve been premier before, and if I go back again, I don’t want people to think it’s going to be miracle time. It’s going to be tougher to get in wage increases with us than it was with Peck.”

Karen: So, the NDP campaigned on being tougher on public sector labour than Social Credit was. In any case, the NDP lost the election, losing about 1% of the popular vote compared to the 1979 election, losing four seats which Social Credit gained to form yet another Social Credit majority, then interpreted this narrow election victory on May 5th, 1983 as a mandate for restraint.

Joel: So, on July 7th, 1983, the Social Credit government introduces a budget bill alongside 26 bills outlining radical changes to government services and labour rights. You may recall that the Fraser Institute had been founded in 1974 as a kind of reaction to Dave Barrett’s NDP government, and it’s been pumping out free market libertarian policy recommendations, at this point, for nine years. A number of their recommendations are now being directly implemented as bills proposed by the Social Credit government.

[recording starts]

Speaker: This policy that’s been brought in this package of legislation that takes apart one piece of society after another is not just the invention of Bill Bennett’s crazed, “it came from Kelowna” mind, but these are the policies that a lot of powerful organizations in British Columbia society have advocated for years, have financed with a lot of their hard unearned money, and have called for. So, Bennett is carrying out the program of powerful organizations in British Columbia, and there’s no mystery about who these organizations are — they’re the BC Employer’s Council, they’re the BC Chamber of Commerce, they’re the Federation of Independent Businessmen BC Branch, the Vancouver Stock Exchange, the Board of trade, and the list goes on and on, including landlord’s associations, the Association of Automobile Dealers, every two-bit contractor who doesn’t want a union worker on the job. That’s an organized force in society, and that, I think, is whose solidarity is really fighting.

[recording ends]

Kate: And these bills, very broadly, basically aimed to undermine the practices of trade unions and the status of collective bargaining more generally as well as abolishing watchdog-type bodies and things like the Human Rights Commission and Code, things like that. They were also aiming, of course, to cut services and centralize authority in the hands of the government. As an example of some of these things, we’ve got Bill 2, the Public Service Labour Relations Amendment. This removed government employees’ rights to negotiate anything except wages, and government employees were organized in the British Columbia Government Employee’s Union, or BCGEU — this is the largest union in British Columbia. There also is Bill 3, the Public Sector Restraint Act, which enabled employers in the public sector to fire employees upon the expiration of a collective agreement. So, essentially, getting rid of job security. You’ve also got Bill 11, the Compensation Stabilization Amendment Act. This handled the wage issue by extended previously-established public sector wage controls, and it also limited bargaining to a -5% to +5% range when it looked at wages. Bill 5 is the Residential Tenancy Act. This abolished the rentalsman’s office and rent controls. Vancouver, of course, has historically had one of the lowest vacancy rates in Canada, and renters have long suffered there at the hands of landlords, so, fortunately, nothing has changed. There was a lot of widely-circulated reports of rent increases at the time, rent increases of 49% to about 100%, and Consumer and Corporate Affairs Minister Jim Hewitt actually indicated that he would allow a blacklisting service for the landlords to operate as long as it met the requirements of the Credit Reporting Act. And then last, but not least, you’ve also got Bill 27, the Human Rights Act. This repealed the Human Rights Code, narrowed the definition of “discrimination,” and limited the amount of compensation you could receive through the Human Rights Commission as well as abolishing it.

Patrick: So, while restraint and balanced budgets were the excuses used for these changes, actual spending in this period went up 12%, and the deficit actually increased by $1,600,000,000. And so, like with a lot of these things, we have to recognize — it’s not about the budget. The budget is always a distraction to get people willing to vote for these things. What it’s really about is changing the structure of the economy in the long term to favour capital and enable it to evade the barriers of higher wages, the higher wages of unionized labour, and, as well, to avoid the taxes that form the basis for the minimum you get from the welfare state. So, the aim is to bring wages down and lower the basic minimum standard people can expect to get when times are tough, all to make things friendlier for capital investment. The earliest responses to all of this budget bullshit comes from the Vancouver and District Labour Council and, particularly, the Labour Council’s Unemployment Committee. Yeah, for real — the Labour Council had an Unemployment Committee. Awesome. With two days’ notice, they organized a demonstration on Monday, July 11th, with representatives of 50 organizations, advocacy groups, unions, political bodies, and the like, and the organizers didn’t have enough room in the hall for everyone who showed up.

Karen: That same day, July 11th, the BC Federation of Labour calls a press conference stating that the BCFL will be leading a major campaign of opposition to the budget. The next day, July 12th, hundreds attend a forum addressed by members of the about-to-be-abolished Human Rights Commission. 24 hours later, the group Women Against The Budget is created, and this feminist group would draw hundreds of women to its regularly highly-charged meetings. Out of all of this, the Lower Mainland Budget Coalition is formed, and, from the July 11th meeting, a six-point resolution is produced calling for a demonstration and urging the BC Federation of Labour to initiate a province-wide protest. A march and rally is scheduled 12 days later on July 23rd in Vancouver.

Joel: On July 15th, the BC Federation of Labour convenes a meeting with representatives of all the province’s unions — including their historical rival unions who had had a history of raiding each other — and announces the formation of Operation Solidarity, an alliance of 500,000 union members representing 37% of the entire workforce of British Columbia. Some of the spicy rhetoric that you might have heard at this meeting includes the head of the Hospital Employees’ Union announcing that they were prepared to fight in the streets and a Telecommunications Workers Union rep who says he believes a general strike, possibly in October, is virtually a certainty. Within three weeks, $1,500,000 is raised for Operation Solidarity, and all but $200,000 of that came from within British Columbia.

Kate: There’s also a workplace occupation that happens. So, on July 19th, the government called union rep Gary Steeves to a meeting in Vancouver and told him that the tranquil home for 325 disabled people in Kamloops would close, putting 600 BCGEU members out of work without following union contract layoff rules. And this was before Bill 3, which I talked about a little bit earlier, had even become law. And what Steeves did is he got on a place to Kamloops right away, he held a mass membership meeting, and the workers supported the idea of taking over the facility themselves. This is not an idea that was without precedent within British Columbia. In a strike against BC Tel about three years earlier, I think, the members of the Telecommunication Workers’ Union had actually taken over their workplaces. So, basically, the workers put together a makeshift BCGEU Tranquille flag and they occupied the facility for 22 days. Their bosses, including the general manager, were holed up in another building. They continued to sign off on expenses, including wages and as well as a $350,000 replacement for an air conditioner of the cerebral palsy unit. Steeves basically threatened management to sign off on expenses or things would get worse, which is really, really cool and, I think, a great strategy, especially considering that our current government in Alberta is trying to do the exact same thing in privatizing and closing homes for people with disabilities.

Patrick: On the 18th of July, a meeting of the Lower Mainland Budget Coalition drew some 450 activists from 150 groups and unions, and rallies of around 1000 and 6000 took place in cities like Kamloops and Victoria. And then, on July 23rd, between 20,000 and 30,000 people gathered at BC Place in Vancouver demanding the withdrawal of the entire legislative package. Where was organized labour in all of this? Well, the president of the BC Federation of Labour was a man by the name of Art Kube, and, as we mentioned, he launched Operation Solidarity about a week before the July 23rd mass demonstration. And he had publicly called for opposition to the quote-unquote “reactionary forces” of Social Credit, but he apparently argued against the July 23rd action on the grounds that it was too early, it could not be successfully mobilized, and because the budget coalition was fairly narrow — and I’m quoting from Kube there — “…was fairly narrow, composed of advocacy groups, and what we had to bring in was the Uncle Tom groups that we could make common cause with around human rights. We had to build a broader base.” Now, I think it’s worth pausing over the language of Uncle Tom there. That’s not language we would use anymore; it’s a really derogatory term. I think what Kube, in his very outdated way, was trying to get at — social community groups that had a less adversarial relationship with the government. Reading the sources on this, it seems that he was opposed to a mass mobilization that wasn’t under the control of the Federation of Labour and that the existing mobilization had too much presence of the Communist Party and community activists for his liking.

Karen: Busloads of unionists, human rights activists, tenants, feminists, and unemployed workers headed to Victoria for a July 27th demonstration. About 25,000 attended, and some great rhetoric came out of this great meeting. An attack on any group must be a fight for all. When working people unite, social and economic victory is not only possible, but inevitable. In Nanaimo and Prince George, local labour councils founded Operation Solidarity centres, and rallies were held in the West Kootaneys and along North Coast. Speakers for Operation Solidarity were crisscrossing the province speaking to unions and concerned citizens. The July 23rd demonstration with 30,000 people convinced Labour that there was a lot of public opposition to the legislation, even from outside the trade union movements.

Kate: On August 3rd, Operation Solidarity called together representatives from more than 200 community-based organizations. So, this was organized in part by the Hospital Employees’ Union’s, and current Vancouver city councillor, Jean Swanson. And, basically, this meeting would see the community weighing of the movement, Solidarity Coalition, formalized into an organization with three co-chairs. You’ve got Art Kube, the BCFL pres; Renate Shearer, the fired human Rights Commissioner; and Father Jim Roberts, a Langara College Religious Studies prof. And, basically, the BC Federation of Labour would provide the Coalition with three organizers, two clerical workers, and $90,000, which is over $200,000 in 2020 CAD. Art Kube is the head of operations Solidarity, and he’s one of the three chairs of the Solidarity Coalition. He’s also the head of the BC Federation of Labour, and the BC Federation of Labour is supporting and funding the Solidarity Coalition; so, there’s a lot of players and organization formations, but Art Kube really has his hands in almost all of them. And what starts to happen is you start seeing rallies in smaller interior communities in British Columbia — so, in Kamloops, Nelson, Williams Lake and Salmon Arm on August 9th, you’ve got rallies of about 1000 to 4000 people. And they also have more planned for Nanaimo, Campbell River, Fort Nelson, Courtenay, and Kelowna.

Joel: Over 50,000 people jammed Vancouver’s Empire Stadium on Wednesday (a workday), August 10th. City firefighters and bus drivers joined other public sector workers and outreach citizens. Government officials threatened workers who attended with reprimands, but Vancouver Service Sector walked off the job instead. The city’s buses stood outside, parked [laughs] outside of Empire Stadium, and unions and comunity groups circles the stadium’s infield. This was a huge demonstration — 50,000 people in the middle of Vancouver.

Patrick: I was watching footage from that one — was that D.O.A. that was playing that show?

Joel: Yeah, D.O.A. released their single “General Strike.”

Patrick: Awesome. That is so —

Joel: [laughs]

Karen: Pretty good.

Patrick: Pretty awesome.

Joel: Yeah. So, in the days that followed the Empire Stadium protests, there were state threats and at least one person was fired. Employees wearing solidarity buttons faced employer harassment and talk of job action naturally increased, as well as a discussion of the need for a general strike. And Art Kube, the BC Federation of Labour president, resisted consideration of such tactics saying, “A general strike is the last thing on my mind,” end quote, and that job actions — again, quoting — “would scare away a great number of groups,” end quote.

Patrick: So, four days after the rally, an Operation Solidarity think tank determined that phase 1, mass protests, were over. Great.

Kate: Oh, good.

Karen: What? [laughs] Oh.

Patrick: Yeah, it’s great. Nothing like an organic process. Phase 2, diversification, and phase 3, public sector bargaining, were now on the agenda. And so, in late August and in early September, we see Operation Solidarity and the Solidarity Coalition causing minimal disruptions. So, now, you may be asking yourself — what does diversification mean? Karen, maybe I’ll let you take this one.

Karen: Oh, sure. So, good news, it actually means a petition drive to secure signatures. A late Sunday in October was chosen as the day that the petition count would be tallied, so I’m sure everyone was looking forward to that. The petition drive included a $40,000 advertising campaign. The Solidarity Coalition, organized by Jean Swanson, would engage in an eight-week consciousness-raising drive called “Action Week.” Goals would be to highlight the budget victims every week. This ended up being poorly planned and too rushed.

Kate: First of all, nothing more romantic, that really gets people’s spirits up, than public sector bargaining and diversification. You know, you really get the blood pumping when you think about them. Two — okay, I have a thousand and one gripes about petitions even though I’ve done a lot of them. The point of a petition is to have a really low barrier to entry if you’re trying to escalate gradually. If you have tens of thousands of people getting into fights with the cops on the street and going on illegal wildcat strikes, you don’t need to do a petition because you’ve already escalated past the point of petitions being useful. This is organizing 101.

Joel: It’s extremely hilarious to think that 50,000 people show up at Empire Stadium on a workday, walking off the job — tons of city buses that should be running around the city are actually just parked in front of the stadium because they’re basically [laughs] walked off the job to do this huge action, and the follow-up action is, “Great. We’ve got 50,000 people together. Our next step is to do a big petition.” [laughs] It’s just —

Karen: Oh man.

Kate: It’s just — so, what is happening on August 10th is that the city firefighters have [a brass band playing and crowds cheering fades in] a brass band that is playing songs flanked by thousands of bus drivers in uniform who’ve just walked off the job. What’s next after that is not a petition. What’s next after that is getting all of those people to march towards a specific building [brass band and crowds fade out] or to simply stay off the job a little bit longer. It’s such a bizarre — okay. Something I truly believe, in terms of organizing, is: you should always be escalating. This is the opposite of “always be escalating.” It is “always be containing.” So, some activists rightly conclude that this shit sucks and that something besides a petition drive and whatever the hell a consciousness-raising tour is need to happen. So, solidarity activists in Victoria release a counter-budget that didn’t get cleared by the Vancouver Solidarity Coalition and meets with disapproval from Art Kube. Demonstrations at the houses of cabinet ministers, which are getting cool, get reprimanded as they are apparently messing with the sanctity of the Hall, which I don’t believe exists if you are a public official who is ruining other people’s lives. Operation Solidarity then starts providing guidelines to keep activists reined in. On August 27th, Women Against the Budget group hold a Stone Soup with Gracie — Gracie being the Social Credit human resources minister — and they take the demonstration to the doorstep of the minister’s house, and Operation Solidarity rejects being involved because bla bla bla private residence bla bla. [crowds singing and chanting begins fading in] So they do street theatre, a soup line, mimes, music, costumes — very ‘70s-type activism. But, because Operation Solidarity, or the Solidarity Coalition, don’t approve, their networks don’t mobilize, and you see a much lower attendance of around 500 people.

Joel: Even then — 500 people at a cabinet minister’s house, it’s still great to see. It’s still good.

Patrick: Yeah, absolutely.

Kate: This makes me think we should get to an analysis, but it’s so bizarre to me, [music begins fading out] whenever I read about the ‘70s and ‘80s, what people’s baseline was for participation and things, and what they thought was good and bad versus what I would consider to be good and bad now.

Karen: Just knock a couple zeros off everything and it’s like, “Oh, it’s pretty good. There’s 50 people.”

Kate: We live in an insanely depoliticized society. It makes me extremely depressed. Anyways.

Patrick: I think that’s a really good part of the analysis, actually, is how strange it seems. I was watching one of the documentaries produced about this, and the level of political engagement by people who did not seem, in any way, trained for political thinking is incredibly strange from our society where even the most mundane political opinion is treated like, “Who has time for that? What are you talking about? Turn your head off, please.” I think this is really good because it is so, frankly, foreign to us.

Kate: I want to be really clear, here, that there’s real material reasons that people were more politically engaged. It’s not just that, “Oh, we’re really bad at organizing now,” or, “Oh, everyone’s really apathetic.” This is happening just at the time that wages are beginning to be decoupled from increases in productivity, but, on average, everyone was making a lot more money relative to the wealthy and relative to the size of the economy than we are now. It was much easier for people to meet their basic needs; there was a lot more public spaces, public institutions, groups like this, so there was real material reasons it was much easier for people to be politically motivated and engaged. Getting back to what’s happening with Operation Solidarity — about three weeks after this Women Against The Budget stone soup luncheon, 80 members of the same group establish a people’s government for 27 hours by occupying the provincial cabinet’s Vancouver offices in Robson Square. They’ve got about 1500-2000 people gathering outside, and George Hewison, who was the chairman of the first Budget Coalition, addresses the crowd and threatens future occupations if the Bennett government continues to ignore growing discontent. Operation Solidarity had been informed about this action, but they withdrew support at the last minute. So, you’re going be starting to see a bit of a pattern here.

Patrick: So, it was well known that Social Credit was going to have its party convention on October 15th at the Hotel Vancouver, but, by mid-September, you will be shocked to learn nothing had been planned. The Lower Mainland Solidarity Coalition called for an all-out mobilization of Solidarity for October 15th at the hotel Vancouver, and Jean Swanson opposed the October action stating that work needed to be done on the petition campaign and that a face to face confrontation with the SocReds might cause violence and negative press. Kube and others reluctantly took steps to make the October 15th action a modest success. Few labour leaders turned out their members, and, according to a late September Operation Solidarity meeting, it was declared that there would be no music, there would only be a brief program centred on reading a newly-devised People’s Charter of Rights, no media or billboard advertising, priority was to be given to securing petition signatures, speeches were to be given out of sight of the Hotel Vancouver [laughs]. Christ. Expecting no more than 10,000-15,000 to show up, trade union figures stressing that “we shouldn’t create expectations for a large turnout,” and Kube said, and I quote, “Feelings are starting to run so high among the rank and file that I’m personally hoping the planned October 15th solidarity march really doesn’t get too large.” Really swinging for the fences here.

Karen: So, in spite of the leadership reluctance that was nearly sabotaged, 60,000 people did show up for the rally. Unauthorized contingent of Cultural Workers Against the Budget distributed song sheets with “Which Side Are You On?” and added a new little verse. It’s:

                        Oh people, can you stand it? Oh, listen to me well.

                        Let’s sink the SoCred government into the deepest pits of hell.

[recording starts]

[people chanting, shouting in background]

Reporter: As they pass the convention site at the Hotel Vancouver, people’s frustration with the inaccessibility of government and bitterness about its callousness surfaced in exchanges with SoCred delegates.

Speaker 1: And I teach 170 kids a week, and you bastards are cutting me back like you wouldn’t believe. And you make me puke, and I’m not going to talk about it anymore. I’m sick of talking with a bunch of fascist idiots. You pea brain!

Chanting crowd: SoCred scum! SoCred scum!

Speaker 2: I’d sure like to live in a society run by people like you and this crowd! Wouldn’t that be a great place to live, eh? When would you open up your camps? When would you open your camps, eh? Good luck in the next election. Good luck.

[recording ends]

Joel: So, for more than two hours, they march outside Hotel Vancouver. As a final pass, they chant “SocReds out, SocReds out.” There were police everywhere, apparently, and the police had engagements, extensive security talks, with Art Kube of the BC Federation of Labour, and the trade union heads were on crowd control duty at this point. Overall, having 60,000 people show up to oppose the governing party’s convention is pretty great to me. [crowd sounds begin fading out] That’s 10,000 more people than showed up to the Empire Stadium thing weeks prior.

Karen: Yeah, so it’s still building despite their efforts to be like, “Let’s downplay this.” You like to see that.

Patrick: So, you may be asking yourself, “Where was the NDP in all of this?” It’s a really good question. So, the BC NDP promised to denounce, filibuster, and delay, to the best of its parliamentary ability, the dirty dozen bills it saw as the most egregious attacks. The SocReds were uncertain about how to proceed — so, remember, they’d introduced these bills in early July, and so they only began with passing these laws on September 19th. And so the procedure that they adopted was to use closure. Now, closure had last been used in BC in 1957, but, during the Solidarity conflict, it was invoked 20 times to bring closure to debate on the bills. All-night sittings were common in the three weeks after September 19th, and the House sat past midnight eleven times. Over this period, the House sat for an average of 62 hours a week, and Dave Barrett, the BC NDP leader, was twice ejected from the legislature. The second time he was ejected, he was actually physically removed from the legislature. So, the BC NDP did not see itself as working in coordination with, or in step with, the street-level mobilizations that were happening; they were interested in parliamentary procedures only. So, Barrett had said some condescending things to the movement. At the first Victoria rally, where 25,000 people had shown up, he said, and I quote, “You come in peace, now go in peace, and please take your garbage.” Really inspiring. And then he was uninvited to the podium at the Empire Stadium rally — perhaps unsurprising — and he had characterized the event as a mere sprint, whereas the real race was being run in the legislature.

Karen: The distance between the NDP and the streets was by design. Trade union leadership wanted Solidarity to be nonpartisan and asked the NDP only to stall the legislation.

Joel: So, quoting Brian Palmer — “In spite of the mobilization of tens of thousands of British Columbians outside of the arena of electoralism and parliamentary procedure, the bureaucratized layer of trade union leaders in the BCFL always conceived of the anti-budget drive as something which should culminate in an electoral victory of social democracy later in the decade. The mass mobilization had to be directed away from militant struggle and into the subdued politics of electoralism. Since they could not lead in the streets, the party of social democracy would simply wait until the labour leadership cooled militancy sufficiently to reestablish a role for the NDP.” So, pretty cynical stuff from Palmer, but he basically argues that [laughs] the NDP was there to stall things in a parliamentary manner and that was it.

[recording starts]

Kate: Hey, folks. We’re interrupting you mid-episode to promote another podcast. Now, we wouldn’t do this for just any other podcast — but, if you like The Alberta Advantage, you should check out the new season of COMMONS, a documentary podcast from Canadaland. Host Arshy Mann takes you right into this country’s dark underbelly, uncovering stories of crime, corruption, and all manner of misdeeds. This season, COMMONS brings you stories about the police. They’ll examine the power that Canadian cops wield and investigate the lengths they’re willing to go to to hold onto it. Subscribe now on your favourite podcast app. And, honestly, I do have to say their past seasons have been fantastic as well. They examine Canada’s fossil fuel industry in their season called CRUDE and then examine some of Canada’s wealthiest and most powerful families in their season DYNASTIES. And we now return to our regularly-scheduled programming.

[recording ends]

Kate: So, part of the rollout of Social Credit’s terrible bills was the initial elimination of 1000 teaching positions, and, the day after introducing their bills, 400 employees received pink slips, and the government expressed its intention of terminating 1600 civil servants by October 31st, which is when the OBCGU contract would lapse. Many of the initial 400 that were terminated were in the human resources ministry, which severely disrupted social services — this is impacting abused children, welfare recipients, women seeking shelter from abuse, people with disabilities, etc. And what’s happening at this point is that the October 31st deadline is really looming, and poll on the first week of October asked the somewhat-torqued question, which was, “If the Solidarity movement were to call a general strike in BC in order to bring about new provincial elections, would you personally stay off the job?” 19.7% said yes, 6.9% would consider, 23.6% have no job to stay away from, and 45.7% rejected an unlimited general strike to bring the government down.

Joel: At first glance, it’s like, okay, an overall and a majority block seems to reject it — but, if you add those numbers up, 20% are in the tank for a general strike, 7% are willing to come on board if it sounds cool, 24% have no job to go on strike from [laughs], so they’ll probably join a picket line anyways. So, you have a substantial slice of population that’s pretty on board for a general strike based on that poll — which, the crafting of the poll for that question is not particularly great, and, even then, the results are quite encouraging.

Kate: So, this is very curious to me, and I’d be curious to see what the results were here, because I’d say 20% is, in any workplace, your bare minimum unless it’s a really hot shop or a really anti-union place. It’s probably the number of people at any given time who are always willing to go on strike or are always willing to do anything. So I guess what’s interesting to me about this is that it almost suggests that Operation Solidarity was just a really successful mobilizing effort rather than actually pushing people towards a willingness to take strike action, which I think is indicative of the extremely poor strategic decisions being made by organized labour over this time period and, probably, the lack of resources they puot into strike prep in the work sites they represented.

Joel: And I think it’s worth thinking through, also — Operation Solidarity is not really pumping up a general strike. If anything, they’re trying to contain expectations about that during this period. So, despite their efforts to tamp those expectations down, you still have a solid 20% locked in, of the general population, that’s pro-general strike.

Kate: And many were calling for a general strike. The Gulf Island Solidarity Coalition was calling for one. Some spoke of merging Operation Solidarity and the Solidarity Coalition to unite forces for a full, unlimited general strike, and, after the October 15th demonstration, the Vancouver District Labour Council did endorse a general strike, and they actually had an ad hoc general strike committee that surfaced at the time.

Patrick: So, between October 22nd and October 23rd, there was a delegated conference of the provincial Solidarity Coalition. There, Jean Swanson says that people came to the conference, quote, “Anticipating there would be a general strike.” Renate Shearer, one of the Solidarity Committee chairs and an ex-Human Rights Commission Member, said, quote, “No question — people came to that meeting to plan for the general strike.” That was not the agenda of the meeting. Resolutions calling for a general strike came from Prince George and Prince Rupert delegates, and Port Alberni delegates called for, quote, “A general strike until the entire legislative package has been withdrawn.” Art Kube, however, wanted to narrow things down. At the same delegated Solidarity Coalition conference, Art announced his intention to abandon anything that did not pertain directly to the immediate, narrow interests of organized labour, arguing that labour issues were bargainable — and I’m quoting here — but social and human rights were not. He did not get a good reception from the floor.

Karen: By late October, there’s a special committee within Operation Solidarity which plans a drawn-out timetable for escalating public sector job action. First would be the BCGEU leaving work for a new contract on Tuesday, November 1st. November 8th : education sector would go on strike. November 10th : Crown corporations, Insurance Corporation of British Columbia, and ferry workers. November 14th: municipal workers and bus drivers. November 18th: hospital and health employees. This sounded like an escalating general strike plan to most people, but, internally, Operation Solidarity was telling their spokespeople to avoid using the term “general strike” and, instead, let others use it. There is a growing disconnect here between public expectations, and the rhetoric such as terms like “general strike” and “repealing the entire package,” and what the labour leadership is seeking, which is to put pressure.

Joel: So, the BCGEU — the BC Government Employees’ Union — was the largest union in the province, and its dues kept the BC Federation of Labour afloat. By late October, most of the focus of the labour leadership is now on Bill 3, the Public Sector Restraint Act, which enabled employers in the public sector to fire employees upon the expiration of a collective agreement, and they are increasingly seeking negotiations about this particular bill. The scheduled layoffs that were to occur at midnight on October 31st didn’t end up happening, but negotiations between BCGEU and the government are basically going nowhere. On November 1st, you have 35,000 BCGEU workers out on strike.

Patrick: So, this is actually, I think, a really interesting moment, because the next point in the line is the teachers. So, teachers were designated to go off the job on Tuesday, November 8th, and they had voted to strike by a really narrow 59.5% margin. So, the teachers had little history of striking in the province, and there were really significant pockets of really pro-SocRed sentiment in the teachers’ union from communities like Abbotsford and Maple Ridge, which have really strong Protestant fundamentalist communities. And so the teachers were soon under intense pressure. The government threatened that they would lose their certificates if they engaged in an illegal walkout, and the SocReds counted on the teachers folding and not walking out, but, in a really impressive turn, the teachers turned out to be completely awesome. They took to the streets in unanticipated numbers and in solidarity, and between 85% and 95% of the BC Teachers’ Federation membership left work.

[recording starts]

Speaker: Our members have told us that they are willing to take what is, for them, almost unprecedented action in defence of the public education system and the economic social and human rights of British Columbia.

[recording ends]

Patrick: And, joining their protests, were also school support staff affiliated with CUPE as well as college and university faculty, students, and workers. Now, the SocReds responded with a wave of injunctions targeting teacher picketing. By the end of the week, ten injunctions had been sought and 35 more were to be heard at the Labour Relations Board the next working Monday. And the government tried its best to get teachers to say they were striking because of the BCGEU, or sympathy striking, and then using that as grounds to say it was illegal. Going back through some of the interviews from the period is really interesting because you get people from the teachers’ union going, “They were hiding in the bushes to jump out and give me another bloody injunction. How many times are you going to give this to me, Ralph?” It’s these really great quotes about how absurd the whole situation was getting.

Kate: Unfortunately, this is kind of where the dominoes start missing dominoes, I guess, and this is when ferry workers who were scheduled to walk off the job on November 10th get pushed back to next Monday. And the reason that this is such a big omission in the chain of events is that this is one group that’s going to have an extremely tangible economic impact. This is not to say the work of the civil service or teachers is not important, but it is also not, in general, engaged in profit generation in a really deliberately explicit way the way something like public transportation is. And Palmer believes that, if they had gone out, then it would have been committed to implementing essential service legislation, and this would have actually brought BC to the brink of a real general strike.

Patrick: Just for a bit of context — BC Ferries is such a fundamental part of life on the west coast. That is our highway. Goods coming and going off of the island, everything comes through that. And so, to really drive home Palmer’s point, striking and shutting down the ferries fundamentally disconnects Victoria, Nanaimo, all of Vancouver Island, all of the Gulf Islands, from economic and basic connections to the mainland. There’s no alternative.

Kate: It’s a choke point.

Patrick: Yeah, it’s a really effective one. So, to really drive home how important a ferry strike really would have been in all this.

Kate: Now, a meeting on November 8th — so, this is the first day of the teachers walking out — Art Kube basically urged everyone to fight for, and I quote, “human decency” and then proceeded to break down and weep on the stage. So, the leader of Operation Solidarity is sobbing on national television as you have these escalating public sector strikes with the potential, or the idealized potential, of a general strike. Now, Kube, at the time was battling pneumonia, and he did end up retiring to his home after this, and Secretary-Treasurer of the BC Federation of Labour Mike Kramer took over the reins in his place after this.

Joel: By November 10th, there were indications that the government was willing to negotiate with the BCGEU. The peace terms, however, were never ratified by any union membership or any coalition activists, and the terms were: to kill Bill 2, the possibility of all public sector unions to negotiate exemptions from Bill 3, no reprisals against strikers, the money saved during the teachers’ strike was to remain in the education system (spoiler alert — the government didn’t end up doing that), establishing advisory committees to hear submissions to the state on the human rights and tenant legislation as well as changes to the Labour Code. So, really asking for tweaks on behalf of BCGEU. Labour leadership kept the Solidarity Coalition in the dark about these developments, and the government, sensing weakness, ended up stalling again around Saturday, November 12th. Negotiations broke down between the BCGEU and the government, and the government was offering 0% in the first year, 0% by November 1st of 1984 — so, a year from then — and then 0% by April 1985 [laughs]. So, they’re offering zeros for the foreseeable future. A marathon bargaining session ensued, and government workers ended up getting 0% for the first year, 3% on November 1st, 1984, and then 1% in April 1985. So, the agreement also allowed the government to lay off the 1600 workers it had wanted to get rid of, and it also sacrificed some union rights on hours and time flexibility. Seems like a bad deal.

Kate: It’s an insanely fucking bad deal.

Joel: I’m not a — [laughs]

Karen: It’s not good! [laughs]

Joel: I’m not a union negotiator or anything —

Karen: No.

Joel: — but it seems bad to me.

Kate: So, the cherry on top of this total fucking lack of sundae is that, to ratify this deal, International Woodworkers of America Head Jack Munro flies to Kelowna to Premier Bennett’s fucking home, and there is no written agreement, there is nothing to hold Bennett to his word with in the media or the public — also, nothing that is legally binding — and it’s called the Kelowna Accord, according to Brian Palmer, was a gentleman’s agreement on the premier’s porch. I know we’re getting into analysis later, but I want to say this here — union negotiators should not be allowed to make backroom deals without those deals being ratified by the membership. Period, full stop. It is one of the most disgusting, unethical, undemocratic thing that continues to happen in unions in North America and around the world, and it is fucking disgusting. No side chit-chats in the hallway! No sending the bargaining committee out of the room and having a fucking gentlemen’s agreement! Truly disgusting; a very, very sad way for this to end. And, rightfully so, when things got explained that evening at a provincial Solidarity meeting, all hell broke loose. There was a lot of disappointment and anger and bitterness.

Joel: And that’s basically the end of Operation Solidarity. I mean, there would be some wind-down activities, but basically all the air gets punched out of the movement with this Kelowna Accord that goes on.

Kate: Very “not with a bang but with a whimper.”

Patrick: Just wonderful. On top of that, the extra sprinkles of that cherry-less sundae is now that, in the 1986 elections, the SoCreds were reelected again.

Joel: Yeah. So the big brain NDP plans of [laughs] keeping the NDP separate from all the street-level stuff —

Karen: Yeah, the long game.

Joel: — so you could play the long game and make sure you win the next election.

Karen: Never works.

Joel: That didn’t work either.

Kate: This is literally the story of the NDP, is, “Look. We’re not doing anything you want —

Joel: [laughs]

Kate: — and we’re not helping at all, but it’s all going to be worth it because we will win the election,” which they fail to do 100% of the time.

Patrick: I think one of the things that is worth — as we shift to try and look back across this, I think it’s worth noting that we’ve quoted a fair bit from Brian Palmer, and his book on solidarity is the most extensive historical statement of it, and it was actually published pretty close to the time, a few years later, and Palmer himself was involved in events, so there’s a lot of first-hand reportage in the book. And it’s a really interesting read; as a piece of writing, it’s actually quite exhilarating. There were some pretty negative reviews of the book because Palmer basically takes the line through his analysis that we’ve been running here, which is that this was all meant to contain, it was scuttled by the social democrats, etc, etc. And he was accused of basically being a holier-than-thou revolutionist by some of his critics, but I think, going back through it, the absolute loss — and then, actually, even recently, The Tyee published a thing that basically tried to come back and say, “People don’t appreciate the things that were actually gained by this.” But I think, in saying that, that response is conditioned by how much shit we’ve eaten in the interceding nearly 40 years, and it’s only having eaten all that shit that you can look back and say that there was anything gained in that collapse. And I think there’s lots to be said about — maybe there wasn’t anything to be won. I don’t want to try and say we’re on the borders of a full-on BC revolution, but I think, whatever criticisms we might have of Palmer’s wider book, his characterization, I think, is bang on.

Joel: I think people then had much better expectations about their future than we do now, is something that is also going on. I found a similar thing when we did the episode about Dave Barrett’s government. One of the sources for that is 1000 Days, I think it’s called, and it was written a few years after the election of 1975 when the NDP lost, and it’s quite raw and quite disappointed in what it reads as the failure of the NDP to win another election, whereas The Art of the Possible, which ends up being the more modern take on Dave Barrett’s government, it’s quite positive and looking back at all of these developments quite fondly. So I think the sheer amount of terrible things that have happened in the decades since makes us look back on it nostalgically rather than — immediately after the events, they were outraged, and it it was completely outrageous what happened.

Kate: Yes, whereas we, realistically, expect everything to get slightly worse every year until we die, right?

Joel: [laughs]

Kate: We don’t actually have expectations for our lives. I think Palmer’s a bit of a crank, but, as a bit of a crank myself —


Joel: Yeah. There’s a certain sense in which Palmer almost seems to be using very deterministic categories for his analysis, like: the social democrats — all they’re going to do is be sellout social democrats. Trade unionist activists — all they’re going to do is be bureaucratic trade union activists just looking out for themselves. The Communist Party? Well, they’re all Stalinists — they only defer to authority. So, there’s these very deterministic reads of all the characters in this story, which — I mean, in this case, I think it’s like an 80% accurate analysis.

Patrick: And I think, again, going into some of the reviews of the book, which is really interesting; I think past book reviews, when things are really close to a time, for these kinds of books can be really, really interesting. And one of the things that I found really jumped out to me was this criticism of Palmer saying, “Well, he goes and he quotes from Rosa Luxemburg, and he’s looking back to the old communists and revolutionaries, and we need to be looking to the future in a sense; this backward-looking approach isn’t helping.” And I think there’s a degree of merit in saying if your politics is just to fall back on old quotations and nostalgia, then that’s not sufficient — and I think, Joel, your point is really well taken; the characters as they emerge in the book seem pretty stock in a lot of ways — but I think to just say, “Well, we should look to the future” also bears the risk of constantly adapting to the situation as it’s given as opposed to holding onto that memory and that tradition and keeping a grip of the fact that we have fought for things and made things better, and giving up ground and constantly accommodating the newest stage of absolute awfulness is not a recipe for finding any sort of solution to things. And I think, Joel, also, you raised that, where people’s sense of things were, that they expected things to get better I think, in terms of “Why are we so optimistic about it and people at the time were more outraged?” — that’s one angle of looking at it, but I also think some of the people writing in response to Palmer, and some of the reviews that came in close at the time, had no perspective about how bad things were going to get. So they were like, “Well, we can play it for the long game. There’s battles to be won. You revolutionaries haven’t won anything, so we’re going to keep adapting.” And they adapted their way to this complete hellhole that we live in.

Kate: I guess I’m of two minds, because, on one hand, the critique is true. I see it all of the time, how frustrated I am with the bureaucracy of trade unions, how frustrated I am with social democrats. But it’s not a new critique; we didn’t invent this. That’s not working, but the critique isn’t working either.

Joel: One critique of what transpired that I came across — I think it was William Carroll that wrote a bit about it — involved the fact that Solidarity, and Solidarity Coalition, did not have a counterhegemonic project. What was happening — you have the breakdown of the Keynesian welfare state on the one hand and basically what is nascent neoliberalism stepping in as the new common sense. What was required was a different flavour of common sense from the Left that was progressive, or whatever, and that needed to be articulated, and it didn’t really get spelled out.

Kate: So, this is something that I was thinking about because I was thinking Operation Solidarity in tandem with other similar, or similarly flavoured, events in other English-speaking countries. So, I was thinking about the Professional Air Traffic Controllers’ Organization strike; so, this is very famous, when Ronald Reagan fired almost 12,000 air traffic controllers when they went on strike. And I was thinking, also, about the Great Strike in the UK — so, this was the 1984-85 illegal strike done by the National Union of Mine Workers under Arthur Scargill. And the reason I was thinking of the three of them together is that they all seem like they’re from another planet or another country. They seem almost inconceivable, that they could be happening, and in three countries that I’ve lived in and am very familiar with. But they also seem to be kind of like the last vestiges of the long 1970s, of a period of massive labour disputes, strikes, things like that. And, when I started thinking this through, what became very interesting to me is: it really represents an entirely different approach of governments towards trade unions. So, in the post-war order, you get governments making, basically, I would say, the classically economically rational cost-benefit analysis when dealing with trade unions. So, it’s the 1970s, the coal miners are on strike; you’re looking at it, you’re going, “Okay, we’ve got this much coal stockpiled, they’re asking for this much in wages, and this is how much disruption they’re going to cost the economy if they continue to be on strike, or how long we think they’re going to be on strike.” And you basically do the math — maybe it’s a three, four week strike, whatever it is — and you give them the wage increase because it just makes sense economically; you’re going to be causing so much destruction to the economy and spending so much money if you hold out on them. But then what happens in the ‘80s is that that no longer is a piece of the puzzle when they’re deciding how to deal with trade unions; it’s about disciplining them and permanently removing that feature of the economy and how the economy is organized. And the example I’ll go to is the ‘84-’85 coal miner strike, because the government outspent the cost of keeping unprofitable mines open — which was, theoretically, the reason for the strike — by 30 to 1 over the period of a year. And this was only in direct cost of policing and dealing with the strike itself. So, when you look at the number like that, that doesn’t actually make any economic sense for a government. If the government is concerned about the cost of this program, then you would never spend 30 times the cost of the program trying to defeat a strike. But what they were really trying to do is say: the strike represents a counterhegemonic vision, or a different way of organizing society, and it has to be defeated at all costs. So, this brought me to the extremely sad, and maybe somewhat defeatist, conclusion that, even if Operation Solidarity had escalated towards a general strike, I’m not sure if it actually would have made a big difference when I look at it in tandem with similar things that were happening in the early 1980s. I fully believe that the Social Credit government would have started fucking firing thousands of public sector workers. This is not to say that they were completely doomed, there was nothing to do, but you look at what’s going on at the time; organizations that were much more militant, that had much better leadership, that were seizing opportunities were not able to win either. So, it’s not a question of being sufficiently militant or sufficiently progressive or having sufficiently good politics, and I think that’s really important.

Joel: I think they really could have — on the train of this particular battle, they probably could’ve gotten themselves some breathing room, they probably could’ve delayed things. There’s a fair number of things that could’ve happened. But, as a more general arc of history and what’s going on with the big structural forces at the time, they really needed to have a vision for a different project than liberalism, and I don’t think they had it at that point.

Kate: And I don’t think people knew neoliberalism was happening yet. I mean, I think they knew the world around them was changing and that there were different forces, but I don’t really think people at the time — particularly on the labour Left — really understood the depth of the structural change that was happening and the complete breakdown in the post-war order.

Patrick: Actually, to speak to that — the documentary that was put out by the National Union of Provincial Employees and Operation Solidarity is called Common Cause — there’s a YouTube link; maybe we can put it in the episode description. There are some profoundly great moments in that documentary, and one of them has a union activist speaking from the floor about Michael Walker of the Fraser Institute and responding to that. And he uses the language — he’s like, “Michael Walker has said he wants to have a revolution, and all of us need to appreciate that a revolution is coming. If we don’t find a way to stop this, a fundamental revolution in the way our society has been structured is about to happen, and we are all going to lose out.” And it’s so prescient and so great.

[recording starts]

Speaker: I think if we take seriously the kind of remarks that people like Michael Walker are publishing regularly in the newspapers. They are callnig this a revolution, and it’s high time, I think, that we take this seriously and prepare for a response to a revolution. And the kind of revolution that, it seems to me, without question that they are doing is a revolution against the weak and against the powerless but also against the powerful like the trade union movement, the people that can speak out and organize and react on behalf of the people of the province. This is an all-out frontal attack against the organization of the democratic roots that will stand in their way of a major change in the society that we are living in, and if we are not fully conscious of the fact that that’s what we’re engaged in, then we’re missing the point.

[recording ends]

Joel: And I think, Kate, I’m not actually arguing with you, because I think even that person didn’t fully appreciate, probably, what was coming down the pipes, and it looks more like a kind of nascent understanding, but it is such a wonderful moment in the documentary that really struck me, and I paused, and I was like, “There was a sense in some of the activists of kind of what they were fighting for?” But I don’t think the full scale of the loss was available to anyone, and what we have lost has been really quite phenomenal,

Kate: I also think this is a time where there’s a lot of competing ideas of alternatives to capitalism, and none of them are really hegemonic on the Left. So, the Soviet Union is still around, but it’s post-1956, it’s post that initial opening up, there is a lot of disillusionment, a lot of what I would literally call lost faith, so that’s no longer seen as the archetypical alternative to capitalism. You have the vestiges of the student movement, the Civil Rights movement, the women’s movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and, with that, you get the idea that the working class is no longer the agent of change that changes our society, but, rather, students, other oppressed peoples, etc; and then you also have the idea that what the Left predicted would happen after World War II under capitalism just did not happen, and the post-war compromise that was reached, and the 30 years after World War II of the post-war labour peace was, in general, highly unanticipated and really caused people to rethink what was going on and how capitalism was structured. So, not only were people unprepared for that, but they were also unprepared for neoliberalism. And I think, when you’re looking at the mishmash of all these things, you see that there’s no real clear idea of an alternative to capitalism or what that could be that’s hegemonic within the actors involved in Operation Solidarity. So, to me, it’s not surprsing that it was unable, in many ways, to have a counterhegemonic vision.

Joel: You have all these ingredients, right? You have mass mobilizations, you have trade unions and rank-and-file members of unions that are actually up in arms about what’s going on, you have an actual supposedly Left opposition in Parliament or whatever. The lack of a counterhegemonic project means that there was no attempt to coordinate all these ingredients into working together or creating positive feedback upon each other’s actions or to move towards a common vision. It was like everybody was siloed out, working on their little piece of the puzzle individually.

Kate: Yeah, it’s a really interesting example, because, when you look at this, you’re like, “Oh, they have all the ingredients for big social change to happen,” but it’s like they put them all in a pot and out came sludge, you know?

Patrick: I think one of the things getting at is that it was because — and going back to both what, Kate and Joel, you’re saying — is that without a positive project — and maybe that’s another way of putting it; counterhegemonic is a fine term, but just to put it in a different direction — it didn’t really have its own positive project, right? The neoliberals were proposing a new vision of society which they said would be better. I mean, it was bullshit, but they said it was going to be better. And this movement is fundamentally defensive, and defensive positions are bound to lose. And so, without a point of unification around achieving something — as opposed to just holding on to what they had — I think things were going to just not work out. And it’s really evident how individual actors in this — and a bit of a poster boy villain this, but Jack Munro was actively antagonistic to things like the Vancouver gay community trying to set out positions and fight for things and, basically, rejecting the idea that some gay person from Vancouver was going to dictate what his union guys were doing. That very siloed, but also very macho and chauvinistic, point of view really kept the different from merging together into a whole to even really put up a successful defensive maneuver, let alone conceive of a real positive alternative.

Kate: One of the threads that I really noticed when we were putting togheter this episode was this idea that is put forth by a variety of labour leaders and other actors in Operation Solidarity, is the idea that strikes somehow turn off the general public or are not palatable to people outside of trade unions. And there’s two things I want to — actually [laughs], there’s a bunch of things I want to bring up here. The first is that this is really representative of a big shift in the discourse that happens in, I would say, about the ‘70s, and, basically, you get this idea that, instead of strikes being done to an employer, strikes are now done to the public. There is this nebulous public — the customer, the service user — and that is the person who strikes are being done towards. Now, absolutely, I’m not going to pretend that strikes don’t impact the general public — people who require or use that service — but, as a rule, strikes are usually done to the employer. The employer is the target of the strike, and the employer is also the person who can end it, generally by meeting demands. So, this is a very successful project in terms of reframing the discourse around striking that is really, really successful in the 1970s, and it’s interesting to me that, in the early 1980s in British Columbia, we see that the labour movement has really bought into this framework and is operating entirely within it. Two — I don’t think strikes turn off the general public. I think strikes force the general public to pick a side. And you know what? Some people are going to pick the side that is against you, but you will always be amazed, when you take action, the number of people who will come out of the woodwork to support you. And the reason this happens is that people don’t just walk around making lists of groups of people or ideas that they support in their head. Maybe exceptionally political people do, but, in general, that’s not really how people think. By taking action, you force people to choose how they are going to perceive you, your cause, and what you are doing. And third — it doesn’t fucking matter if strikes turn off the general public because the public doesn’t settle strikes. Workers settle strikes. Employers settle strikes. Governments settle strikes. At the end of the day, the public can hate your guts, but, if you have a choke point, if you control a piece of critical infrastructure or a critical service, it is a matter of: everyone else in the world hates you [outro music begins fading in] — if you don’t go to work and they can’t replace your labour in a real way, then you’re going to win anyways. So, I really want to push back on the idea that came through in our research document, and that is also really common today, of strikes turning off the general public. Thank you for joining us on this episode of The Alberta Advantage where we learned about the opposite of solidarity, the very real Operation Solidarity that took place in British Columbia in the 1980s. Next time, I hope we can do this all again but for real this time. Take care out there, and have a good one. Bye, everyone!

All: Bye!

Singer: We are solidarity, and we’re taking it to the streets/

We’re demanding dignity for the ones who need most caring/

So it’s you and me, solidarity

Kate: If you liked today’s episode, you should check out the Harbinger Media Network, featuring shows like the popular, bi-weekly Toronto Ecosocialist podcast Oats for Breakfast, which approaches questions related to socialist strategy from an open, non-dogmatic perspective with hosts Umair, Sadia, and a rotating panel of guests. Find out more about the Harbinger Media Network and the entire cross-country line of podcasts at harbingermedianetwork.com.

Singer: We are solidarity, there’s an anchor we are sharing/

We are solidarity, and we’re taking it to the street/

We’re demanding dignity for the ones who need most caring/

So it’s you and me, solidarity/

Yes, it’s you and me, solidarity

[outro music ends]

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