Defying the rule of law: Lessons learned from the BC teachers strike, 2005

A short account and comment on the two week illegal strike of teachers in British Columbia which won gains on wages and class size reductions.

Submitted by Steven. on February 8, 2007

by Chris, Northwest Anarchist Federation

For two weeks, over 42,000 teachers in BC engaged in an illegal strike, defying back to work legislation imposed by the provincial government. Their struggle marks an important milestone in the resurgence of militant rank-and-file struggles across the province. While the provincial government has legislated public sector employees back to work seven times over the past 4 years, this is the first time that the government has been forced to return to the bargaining table. The strength of workers in collectively withdrawing their labour power is being quickly remembered.

While public sector workers have defied previous attempts to legislate them back to work, their attempts to escalate job action have been consistently undermined by a conservative trade union bureaucracy with the backing of the provincial NDP. As the teachers chose to undertake illegal job action, they were roundly condemned by NDP leader Carole James who argued that they should respect the "rule of law". The court decision to freeze the BCTF's (union) strike funds was lauded by the NDP opposition critic on education as an opportunity for "cooler heads to prevail".

Building on the lessons learned by striking health care workers in April 2004 workers are coming to understand the need to build power from the base.

Measures were taken by the teachers that would ensure that their actions would not be sabotaged. This time around it was decided that the rank-and-file would have to vote on any negotiated settlement before it was agreed upon to return to work. While over 600,000 elementary and secondary school students were out of class, the strike maintained a large degree of public support. On Monday, October 17 a general strike was organized in the city of Victoria, bringing together over 35,000 public and private sector workers. Public transit, post offices, construction sites, and liquor stores were all shut down as workers converged in a large rally at the legislature. This was just the beginning of a series of coordinated public sector strikes that rolled across the province in the days that followed.

As the provincial government came to realize that these actions were building in strength, they quickly reversed their position, opening the doors to a mediated settlement. While the settlement did not offer any conclusive or substantive gains, simply redistributing a few million dollars to harmonize wages and lower class sizes, teacher’s voted by a 77 percent margin to accept the agreement. Nevertheless, the actions of the BC teachers sets an important precedent, showing the power of workers who choose to defy the law in order to assert their collective bargaining rights. As an enormous number of public sector workers in province move into a bargaining position in the spring, the force of these actions will not be forgotten.