Will Wisconsin’s labour war spread to BC? If it does, look out

The weekend’s cross-border labour rally at the Peace Arch — attendance was variously estimated at between 1,000 and 3,000 union members — was designed to boost the morale of Wisconsin unions fighting a Republican governor determined to strip them of their bargaining rights.

Could it happen here?

Gwyn Morgan, a key advisor to Premier Christy Clark, has called for similar action in several recent nationally-published articles. In this column for Business in Vancouver, I recall the lessons BC’s own history teaches about similar undertakings.

The long siege of the Wisconsin State Capitol, where Republican governor Scott Walker is trying to wipe out collective bargaining rights for public sector workers, should ring a bell for British Columbians – and sound a warning to new BC Premier Christy Clark.
There was exultation in many US corporate boardrooms when Walker, claiming it was the only way he could balance Wisconsin’s books, brought in sweeping legislation to roll back public sector salaries and benefits.
He’s seeking to gut the unions’ rights to organize and to bargain while he’s at it.
Walker made teachers the poster children for parasitical public sector behaviour. After all, they make more than $70,000 a year with benefits, finish work at 3 p.m. and get two months off each summer, right?
But things soon went sideways. Democratic lawmakers skipped the state, denying him a quorum. More than 100,000 citizens marched on the Capitol. Thousands more occupied the building.
By the end of February, several weeks into the war, reports began to filter out that Parker’s Republican majority was splintering.
No wonder. According to the Toronto Star, two national US polls found strong support for the unions, with one showing respondents siding with the labour movement by a 2-1 margin.
Walker has done more in a few short weeks to rally support for the US labour movement than labour leaders themselves have achieved in 40 years.
The Tea Party notwithstanding, the American middle class places the blame for the current recession squarely at the feet of Wall St., which has received a massive public bailout and then resumed its pre-recession lifestyle. Automakers got the same treatment.
Now, with state budgets in crisis, no one believes teachers’ and social workers’ pensions are the root cause or that gutting their contracts will turn things around – even if that was possible.
It all sounds familiar to Ken Novakowski, a retired teacher who was president of the BC Teachers Federation from 1989 to 1992 and executive director for six years until 2010.
“Once teachers win bargaining rights, that’s it,” he says. “They never give them back.” It was Wisconsin, in fact, where public sector workers and teachers first won the right to bargain and strike in the late 1950s.
BC’s teachers were slow to rally to labour, rejecting a proposal to seek the right to strike by 60 percent in a union referendum in 1982.
But Premier Bill Bennett’s 1983 legislative restraint program, a blitzkrieg of 26 bills that included direct attacks on public services and public sector bargaining, ignited outrage among teachers.
The BCTF’s job action during what became Operation Solidarity helped force Bennett’s negotiated settlement in the Kelowna Accord, which left union rights basically untouched. The confrontation arguably cost him his political career.
When Bill Vander Zalm became premier four years later, he launched his own attack on labour with Bills 19 and 20. Bill 19 rewrote the Labour Code and triggered a one-day general strike. Bill 20 purported to give teachers the right to strike, provided they signed up each local separately.
Vander Zalm, recalling 1982, did not believe teachers would sign on. Wrong, recalls Novakowski: “We had 99 percent voluntary sign-up into the BCTF.”
Now Clark is BC Premier, with her own financial problems, her own history of sour dealings with the BCTF and with former Encana president Gwyn Morgan a key figure in her transition team.
“Now is the time to end public sector unions’ monopoly power by moving ahead with private sector contracting of government services,” Morgan declared in a 2009 column, adding that public sector unions “will never again be able to convince people they serve any positive purpose.”
“The private sector has gone through wrenching challenge and change,” he wrote in 2010. “Now it’s the public sector’s turn.”
If Clark takes that advice, the province will be in for an even rougher ride than Walker’s Wisconsin meltdown. She should ask Bill Bennett how it worked out the last time.