Vancouver union rally
opposes government cutbacks
Lead contingents in march of more than 20,000 in Vancouver, British Columbia. The union-sponsored action mobilized working people against antilabor drive by provincial government, which includes cutbacks in social services, health care, and education.
BY BEVERLY BERNARDO
VANCOUVER, British Columbia--Thousands of working people took to the streets here May 25 to protest cutbacks in social services and health care, antiunion measures, and attacks on education and workersí rights being carried out by the Liberal government of Premier Gordon Campbell.
The B.C. Federation of Labor which organized the action reported some 40,000 people joined the march. Police estimated the crowd at 20,000.
The action builds on a number of strikes and protests this year in the province, including marches of 30,000 in the capital Victoria February 23 and of 10,000 in Vancouver March 23. In January the British Columbia Teachers Federation (BCTF) carried out a one-day strike--considered illegal by the government--against a contract imposed by Campbell.
The Liberal party won last yearís provincial elections, sweeping out the New Democratic Party (NDP) which had headed the government. The NDP is a social democratic labor party with a base in the trade unions. Since then, the Liberals have pressed forward its anti-labor assault on a number of fronts, igniting deep opposition from working people, Natives, and students.
The cityís downtown was closed to automobile traffic for several hours as marchers assembled at four rallying points. First Nations, a coalition of Native organizations, headed a contingent from Victory Square and led the demonstration. The marchers proceeded to pick up the other contingents along the way.
The lively, colorful march featured large banners, homemade signs, Native drummers, and spirited chants such as, "They say cutback, we say fight back" and "Hey, hey! ho, ho! Gordon Campbellís got to go!" At St. Paulís Hospital along the route, a choir from the Hospital Employees Union sang from the flatbed of a truck decorated with a Teamsters banner. The group performed union songs including some written about the current fight in British Columbia.
Despite a steady drizzle, thousands stayed at the rally site after the march to hear speeches from labor officials and other rally organizers. Many stopped to look at and discuss politics at the numerous booths featuring literature and displays.
Government cuts in social services were the focus of many protestersí anger. "The Campbell government has gotten rid of wage equality provisions so instead of making $16 an hour, weíll go back to $12.31 an hour as of April 2003," said Tina, a child care worker and member of the British Columbia Government and Services Employees Union. "Medical benefits will also be cut for several thousand workers. Iím here not just because Iím directly affected but also because of the affect on health care and education. I donít want to see 40 in a class," she said, referring to expected increase in the number of students in a classroom due to attacks on education.
Jackie, an elementary school teacher and member of the BCTF, came to the rally with a group of teachers from Burnaby. She told the Militant she is being laid off. The school system is "going back to five years seniority in laying off high school teachers." Some 96 high school teachers, 52 elementary teachers, and 4 from the school of the deaf are being laid off, the teachers said. "The grade one class I was teaching this year will increase in size from 18 to 23," Jackie added.
The shutting down of long-term care facilities for the elderly by the government has angered many people. For example, when a Chilliwack couple in their 80s who have been married for 60 years were separated because of their residence being closed, 200 people turned out to demand that the government find them spaces where they could continue to live together.
More workers employed in the private sector turned out for the Vancouver march than for previous actions against the cuts. Carpenters, painters, and construction workers had significant contingents at the May 25 action.
This was due in part to their opposition to changes the B.C. government has began to make to the labor code. The new measures will make it more difficult for workers to unionize. They change minimum employment standards so the bosses can make employees work more than eight hours without paying overtime rates. Companies can now hire workers under the age of 15 with fewer protections and alter their shift schedules without any notice.
The stakes for all working people in resisting the offensive waged by the Liberal government are becoming apparent to many workers. "They want to run the whole province like they do this company," said a worker from a nonunion meatpacking plant who joined the march.
Beverly Bernardo is a meat packer. Ned Dmytryshyn contributed to this article.