The right-wing assault
On July 7 1983, British Columbia’s newly re-elected Social Credit (Socred) government brought forward an unprecedented “restraint” budget (aka austerity) and 26 pieces of legislation to radically transform the province.
Legislation massively rolled back workers’ rights, cut public services and the social safety net, and reduced government oversight and regulation of industry. Premier Bill Bennett and the Socreds had turned British Columbia into an experiment for new right-wing policies pumped out by new “think tanks” like the Fraser Institute and seen in Thatcher’s Britain and Reagan’s America. These were ideas that would become the norm in the 1990s across the country.
The frontal assault by the Socreds sparked off a massive grassroots mobilization between July and November of 1983. Massive protests were held, anywhere from 50,000 to 80,000 strong in some cases.
While the Socreds steamrolled the legislature and made parliamentary democracy a disgrace in the eyes of many, the movement was heading towards a province-wide general strike. The BCGEU, facing massive layoffs as part of the government attacks, walked out on a 40,000-strong legal strike on November 1, followed by an illegal walkout of 50,000 teachers and educators. Hospital employees were due to strike November 14, and a general strike scheduled for November 18.
Fearing further escalation involving private sector unions, International Woodworkers of America president Jack Munro emerged from Premier Bill Bennett’s home announcing the “Kelowna Accord” which completely sold out the movement in exchange for promises to review the austerity budget and legislation. Senior union leaders dutifully shut down the strike, accepting Munro’s deal with Bennett.
The following BCGEU video is produced in 1984 captures the ferocity and dynamism of the movement, but fudges how the strike movement came to an end. For this story, we recommend Bryan Palmer’s little book “Solidarity: The Rise and Fall of an Opposition in British Columbia.”