Lessons Of the Black Sunday Sellout
Over the May Day weekend, many thousands of working class people around B.C. were confident that something truly wonderful, yet something also deadly serious, was going to flower in the coming week, beginning Monday, the 3rd. Behind it all, what it was all about was what has been sometimes called the 'social question'. But what was at the forefront of this burgeoning movement was the question of the provincial government's treatment of hospital workers particularly and of the public health care system in B.C. more generally. Yet these two issues, which combine the government's 'labour relations policy' with its public health care policy, just so happen to be the two most important for the majority of working class people in B.C. today. So when the Campbell government made a huge miscalculation in both legislating the striking HEU workers back to work AND at the same time directly imposing a contract on those workers involving more concessions and reductions than the Health Employers Association had been demanding during previous negotiations with the HEU, there was a tremendous surge of both anger at the government and solidarity with the viciously attacked workers in the HEU across the province, a surge which I dare say surprised everyone in B.C. The anger was truly palpable from Thursday (April 29) on, but so was the sense of solidarity, especially from Friday on. The difference was that while the anger remained more or less constant, the sense of solidarity was growing rapidly throughout Friday, Saturday (May Day) and Sunday, until that fateful moment when most involved learned that the planned escalating general strike was called off as the HEU with the help of the B.C. Federation of Labour had agreed to a deal with the government.
But that moment on what some are now calling Black Sunday was only fateful in that it spelled the death of the particular general strike planned to unfold this past week. The determination to fight the Campbell government must still be there in hundreds of thousands of working people and their families, and we now know that there exists within this sector of the population a sense of solidarity far stronger than anything the B.C. Fed. or any union leader in the province has led us to believe. It is true that an extremely favourable opportunity for launching an all-out class war against a viciously anti-working class government has been lost. And it is true that if only two or three days of the planned escalating mass strike had been allowed to develop, that a massive surge forward in class consciousness and in the political maturation of the entire working class in B.C. would have undoubtedly occurred. Fundamental social-political truths about this society and the forces that, confronting one another, comprise it, truths which have been well hidden for most working class people for 20 years now, would have been clearly exposed not only for the 200,000 to 300,000 workers who would have been directly involved in the strike, but also for the rest of the roughly 2 million working class people in B.C. Most important of these would have been the enormous power that the working class is capable of wielding when it is united in active, defiant class solidarity against the treachery of the ruling class. The new generation of workers which has arisen within the past 20 years has not had direct experience of that power, and thus, for the most part, is not convinced that it really exists. They would have been irreversibly convinced of the reality of that power had even just a couple of days of the expected general strike taken place. They would have learned quite well where the class lines are that separate the working class, the middle class, and the ruling capitalist class, and that the basic interests of the working class are not compatible with those of either the ruling class or the middle class. All of this was so close to being achieved, and it was lost, and that is truly unfortunate. But I for one don't feel like mourning, and I think there many others who feel the same way.
I think there are many others who feel confident that just a few days of the general strike that had been planned to develop would have won the HEU workers far, far more than what the union leadership and the 'help' of B.C. Fed. got for them (really, forced on them, since they have no say in it). I think there are many who feel very emboldened as working class militants as a result of the experience of the surge of solidarity around the province. And the beyond palpable sense of disgust and rage at the betrayal of the struggle by the leadership of the HEU and the B.C. Fed., while negative in itself, can only confirm and strengthen that conviction that we really are all together in this, that the ongoing HEU workers' struggle is OUR struggle, and that we need to now look forward to, to plan and organize for the general strike we were all hoping to bring about this past week.
There is one crucial lesson that we all need to draw from this latest defeat, and the way the events unfolded, it shouldn't be too difficult to do so. What happened this time that we want to make sure we avoid next time? Clearly, it is the sell-out by the HEU and B.C. Fed. leaders. How can we make sure that doesn't happen again? Why do we allow these leaderships to do this to us, to even be in a position to do this to us? Why don't we, the rank and file, have any control over them at the most crucial of moments? It is the power structure and the mode of functioning of the trade unions as they are today that allows these betrayals by the leaderships to occur. So if we want to make sure that such betrayals can't possibly occur again, we need to either change the power structure and mode of functioning of the trade unions we are in OR we need to simply bypass those structures, their rules and laws, to organize ourselves in our own general assemblies and committees, with directly elected, mandated, and revocable delegates, in other words, to take the struggle directly into our own (collective) hands. Dedicated union activists have tried for decades to reform the power structures and mode of functioning of their unions, all to little if any effect. The second alternative, which unfortunately didn't take shape amongst the bulk of the HEU and CUPE membership on Monday (and when it has happened in other places at other times it has appeared spontaneously), is in reality the only way for rank and file unionized workers to take control of their workplace struggles away from the union bosses and bureaucrats. Class struggles around the world for decades have clearly shown this to be so. The unions everywhere stand in the way of workers' self-determination. But this strategy requires a far greater level of involvement and commitment on the part of the membership, of those involved in the struggle, than working through the existing channels of reforming the unions. In any case, what occurred on Black Sunday should have put to rest all strategies for bringing about a general strike (or strikes) and beyond it a renewed militant working class movement based on pressuring the union leaderships from below. We all should be able to see now that that road is a dead end.
May 7, 2004