By Victoria — Fourteen anti-government rallies, the largest attended by 20,000 people in Victoria, were held across B.C. on the weekend in what labour leaders consider the start of a sustained battle against the provincial government.
Everything from launching a general strike to preparing for recall campaigns in the fall are being discussed in the wake of the rallies, which included Victoria’s largest political protest in nearly two decades.
“I think this is a movement that is growing and becoming more rooted in communities as the anger starts to spread,” B.C. Federation of Labour president Jim Sinclair said in an interview Sunday.
“We’re trying to make this an effective political force in the province and put pressure on the government and the local MLAs.”
Sinclair said the anti-government campaign will now move to the communities, where individual politicians will be pressured to vote in the best interests of their communities rather than of the government.
While Victoria hosted the largest protest, there were 13 other anti-government rallies across B.C. on Saturday, including large gatherings in the Okanagan and Prince George. Most of the anger was directed at Premier Gordon Campbell, who was repeatedly called a liar for breaking his promise not to reopen signed collective agreements with unions.
As protesters spilled from the steps of the legislature on to the causeway and past the Empress Hotel, one Campbell effigy was burned, another was hanged from a tree and a third danced around and accepted verbal abuse from the crowd.
“Something’s got to be done about this man,” said disabled advocate Joanne Hicks, who attended the Victoria protest in her motorized scooter.
“Maybe he’ll wake up to the problems he’s created. What we see going on is not what anyone voted for.”
School support worker Judy Ilan said the government can’t afford to ignore the protest. “This can’t bring the government down — not one rally — but the movement that starts here can,” she said.
Public anger is being fuelled by the elimination of 24 courthouses, the expected closure of numerous hospitals, the loss of nearly 12,000 government jobs, an $800-million increase in taxes and a budget last week that ushered in a dramatic increase in debt and the largest deficit in B.C. history at $4.4 billion.
Late last week, Campbell dismissed the significance of the protest, saying he’d be watching the Olympics on the weekend rather than paying attention to a group of unions and special-interest groups.
Although an interview was requested several days before the protest, Campbell was unavailable Sunday for comment. A spokesperson said commenting on the protest was not a priority for the premier.
Although there is talk of a general provincewide strike — particularly by public-sector union leaders — most private-sector unions say they have been battered too badly by the economy to participate.
IWA-Canada president Dave Haggard said he is steadfastly opposed to a general strike.
“I have over 8,000 or 9,000 people laid off today and we’re trying to get them back to work,” he said. “How do you go on a one-day general strike and change the government’s mind? That’s dreaming in technicolour.”
Sinclair said Sunday a general strike is still one of the options as union leaders attempt to channel widespread anger with the government into action.
At the very least, B.C. labour wants to be heard by the Liberal government as it remakes virtually every facet of the provincial government.
George Heyman, president of the B.C. Government and Service Employees Union, said Campbell shouldn’t trivialize it when 20,000 British Columbians protest on the legislature lawn.
“I think it’s extremely confrontational for the premier to paint everyone who opposes what he’s doing as a special interest group or a self-serving public sector union,” Heyman said in an interview. “The face of protest isn’t people on the margins of society, it is people in the mainstream who object to the government carrying out a radical agenda that they hid from us during the election campaign.”
Called Campaign B.C., the rally was dominated by union leaders and supporters. The B.C. Federation of Labour spent $100,000 organizing the event.
With a chartered ferry, organized car cavalcades and about 150 buses carrying union members, seniors and community activists to Victoria, organizers said Saturday’s protest was the largest legislature rally in about two decades.
It rivalled the Operation Solidarity rally in 1983, protesting against then-premier Bill Bennett’s sweeping restraint legislation that included limiting public sector wages.