British Columbia unions bow to Bennett's austerity program

The British Columbia government took on labor in Canada's most heavily unionized province and won. Schools and government offices in the province reopened this week. They had been closed on or skeleton staff since Nov. 1, when more than 85,000 public servants went on strike to try to save jobs.

Some 22,000 more workers were to have joined them this week, including those who run the ferry services to the many islands scattered off the Pacific coast of British Columbia.

The strike had already brought hardships to the province. Almost half a million children were affected as schools closed - even principals walked out. Court cases were slowed, and lawbreakers got a break as many minor charges such as shoplifting were dropped because there was no clerical staff to handle the logjam of cases. Things would have worsened if the strike had not ended.

The strike ended in a victory for the government after 30 hours of last-minute negotiations last weekend to avert a wider strike on Monday. The civil servants who started the strike have accepted pay hikes of 3 percent for this year and 1 percent for next year.

The winner in the dispute is British Columbia Premier William Bennett. After winning an election this year over the socialist New Democratic Party, he promptly brought in a program to hold down government spending and trim the number of people on the government payroll by 25 percent. The unions said no.

Labor and political groups formed a coalition to fight the government's plan. The other evening the workers were singing ''Solidarity Forever,'' but it must have been to keep their spirits up. Bill Bennett had won the fight.

The labor situation in British Columbia had been heating up all summer, especially after the announcement July 7 that the civil service was to be cut by 25 percent and the more than 250,000 public service workers were going to lose their job security, the freedom from being fired.

''Workers in a hardware store don't have job security,'' said Mr. Bennett, who owns a hardware store in his hometown of Kelowna.

The summer and fall were filled with massive demonstrations against the government plan. There was heated debate in the provincial legislature, and the leader of the New Democratic Party, former Premier Dave Barrett, was expelled from the house.

As the threatened strike drew nearer, Mr. Bennett headed east to explain his case to a group of reporters in Toronto. Although his comments there were off the record, they mirrored what he had been saying in British Columbia.

Bennett has said all along that he is not antiunion; he is simply trying to get the provincial deficit down. He is a conservative man and does not believe that either a person or a government should spend beyond their means.

In many ways British Columbia is the California of Canada. It has the warmest weather in the country, the skyline of Vancouver with mountains and the ocean resembles San Francisco, and the politics are polarized.

In British Columbia politics, things for the most part are black and white. There seems little room for subtle shades of gray.

Bennett leads the Social Credit Party, but there is very little socialistic about it and it takes a stern view of credit, especially that issued by the government. The Social Credit government said it would not back down in the face of the unions and it did not.

''The government will not be intimidated,'' Cabinet minister Jim Chabot said at the height of the walkout.

The British Columbia economy is based on natural resources, mainly lumber, coal, and fish. All three areas were hard hit during the recent recession.

More than the rest of Canada British Columbia depends on world trade. It does only 12 percent of its business with the rest of Canada. The drop in housing starts in the United States spelled disaster for the lumber industry. Coal shipments to Japan fell.

The provincial treasury was bringing in less money at a time when the government had to support more welfare payments and a large civil service that had job tenure.

Bennett will now have his costs under control. The only thing conceded to the unions was seniority.

The government will continue to trim the civil service rolls, and joining the British Columbia civil service no longer guarantees a job for life.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.