i keep trying to blog and finding the livejournal server down – it’s starting to get to me a bit.
i am in the process of writing a talk for next week on the nature of grassroots solidarity and the almost-general strike of may, 2004. what happened, why didn’t we pull it off, and how were communities independent of the union structure building on the solidarity displayed by rank and file unioninsts. i’m going to talk about the importance of grassroots networks in building resistance no only to our government and our employers, but sometimes even our own union leaderships.
according to dictionary.com the term solidarity is defined as “a union of interests, purposes, or sympathies among members of a group; fellowship of responsibilities and interests.”
when we look at the movements of people around the world, there is no doubt solidarity is the glue for not only the struggle for better working conditions and wages, but more social programs, better housing, clean water and any other cause we might unite jointly around. we unite as people because we share a common goal, and because we have a common outcome in mind. this is how disparate people can come and work together – because they share an idea of what they want to win at the end of the fight, no matter how much they disagree with each other tactically and strategically along the way.
in april/may 2004 we witnessed an unprecedented rank and file solidarity with striking members of the hospital employees union. people were angry with the government for legislating wage roll-backs, but the incident served as a flash-point for a much greater anger at the government for gutting public services and attacking our fundamental rights as citizens. wildcat walk outs and flying pickets dominated the news across for two days and there was a general “day of action” called for monday, may 3rd in which it was expected unionized workers across the province would shut everything down. people in every neighbourhood were talking about it, and i received calls from many union members at worksites from comox to prince rupert asking us what we were going to do to support the struggle.
3 years of provincial government abuse and neglect of working people all of a sudden snapped back in the form of a movement based in common cause – and that common cause was clearly to put an end to the reckless and cruel policies that have affected us all since the election of the bc liberals. people echoed each other from every neighbourhood and transit bus, in many meetings and on every street corner – saying “it’s about time” as if everyone had just been waiting for the right moment to strike. the momentum built from there, giving activists from every quadrant days of elation at the possibility of real resistance, of real courage by working people. at the may 1st rally, thousands of people chanted for a general strike, while the leadership tried to keep the lid on it, using a powerful sound system to chant over their own members with the much weaker slogan “we will not back down”.
but the solidarity was quickly severed by a single man, backed by a small handful of union leaders – effectively destroying the hope that our common cause be recognized. the day after mayday, 2004 – jim sinclair – bc federation of labour president went on the television and told unioninsts and activists to stand down against the government which begs the question – whose “solidarity” were they talking about in the first place?
it became clear after hospital employee union members were forced to accept a raw deal from their “leaders” the interests of themselves and their elected leadership were two different things. it became clear to all of us in that moment the fight we were poised to wage, was not the same fight our “leaders” were fighting at all.
in the following days it was explained in phone calls and emails to all rank and file activists that the real goal was to get the ndp re-elected in 2005, and we shouldn’t do anything in the meantime to jeopardize that. this being the stated
aim of those “leaders” claiming to be in solidarity with their memberships. interestingly, i didn’t talk to a lot of working people on the picket lines who really cared about getting the ndp re-elected. sure, people generally agree it would be better than the liberals, but the goal of heu members was to keep their wages intact. the goal of the rest of us was to support them and to show the government that they couldn’t just push us around anymore and cut hospitals, schools and welfare cheques. our common cause would likely include making any government accountable through taking action – whether they be the ndp or the liberals or the greens.
clearly – the “union of interests” is different for our leaders than for the rank and file – and so when we talk about building solidarity – we need to look beyond our union structures. solidarity is not about standing behind a few individuals who we elect every few years – just as democracy is not about electing george bush or gordon campbell and then acting as though there is nothing to do until the next election. solidarity is about building grassroots networks based on our common interests – among rank and file people – and these networks are not built overnight but through consistent discussions, arguments and communications of all kinds among working people – the type of communication that has all but been destroyed by the dominance of the mass media in our lives.
we get to choose what lessons we walk away from may 2004 with. many people have said they will quit union activism, so dissapointed were they in the actions of their leaders, and many have threatened to stay on and challenge the leaderships that many of us felt sold us out. i believe that the rank and file has a single task at hand which is to build our networks of resistance from the ground up – so that next time around we are strong enough to not only fight the government, and our bosses – but our own leaderships as well.