1452 Scuttling Solidarity, 1983

Solidarity: Canada’s Unknown Revolution of 1983
by David Spaner

Vancouver: Ronsdale Press, 2021
$24.95 / 9781553806387

Reviewed by Larry Hannant

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Solidarity erupted in the very month I arrived in BC. I went straight from a moving van to the streets of Van. For me, Solidarity’s Empire Stadium rally on 10 August was a thrilling moment, with 40,000 united in opposition to the Social Credit government’s punishing restraint agenda. Every voice turned hoarse in welcoming a contingent of bus drivers marching into the stadium. When transit workers are on strike, a city is paralyzed. This was people’s power.

For me and fellow activists, however, the five-month Solidarity mobilization turned out to be an exhibition of a different kind of power – the resilience of business as usual. To make matters worse, the brutal lesson was administered by a supposed ally, International Woodworkers of America (IWA) BC president Jack Munro.

That exhilarating social upheaval is the subject of David Spaner’s Solidarity, with its subtitle describing the uprising as a revolution. While it had revolutionary potential, in retrospect Solidarity must also be viewed through the lens of counter-revolution. And that’s an element missing here.

Spaner is at his best in bringing the voices of social activists to the fore, based in part on his own interviews. We hear from them the hope for a popular social justice movement apparently firmly linked to workers organized into BC Federation of Labour unions, plus others outside the BCFED, like the BC Teachers’ Federation and the Canadian Association of Industrial, Mechanical and Allied Workers (CAIMAW). Jean Swanson, a key Solidarity Coalition organizer, credits BCFED president Art Kube with initiating a united front that “could work together and come up with something big” (p. 40). Solidarity Coalition represented the many social groups skewered by the BC government’s repressive legislation, Operation Solidarity the union arm.

Art Kube (1935-2019), the Polish-born president of BC Federation of Labour and chairperson of Operation Solidarity. Photo by Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

Hubris on the part of BC Premier Bill Bennett, fresh from an election win in May 1983, sparked the unlikely united front of social justice advocates and organized labour. Egged on by the right-wing Fraser Institute, Bennett’s government introduced 26 bills that promised to do no less than roll back the entire postwar social democratic agenda — human rights protections, rent regulation and tenant security, secure labour contracts and public-sector jobs with competitive wages.

This about-face was guided by the U.S. neo-conservative guru Milton Friedman, who had overseen the mauling of Chile after General Augusto Pinochet’s armed overthrow of the socialist Allende government in 1973. Friedman’s mantra, endlessly repeated by the right-wing Fraser Institute, was to gut anything that would “sap the vital fluids of the marketplace.” High on the Socred hit list was the province’s 200,000-strong public sector, which the speech from the throne of 7 July described as “intrusive and overweight.” The BCGEU contract was set to expire 31 October, and one of the proposed legislative acts ruled out negotiations on anything but wages and set the stage for wage cuts. Public servants were also put on notice that they could be fired without cause when the contract ended, and 1600 immediately were.

Other unions joined BCGEU picket lines at Robson Square in downtown Vancouver, October 31, 1983. Photo by Sean Griffin. Image MSC160-903_31A, Pacific Tribune Photo Collection, Simon Fraser University Library

But Social Credit didn’t stop at attacking public sector unions. With the province’s GDP down 6 percent and unemployment at 14 percent, there were people who Bennett called “bad British Columbians” who needed to be slapped down to restore the province’s economic health. Women’s health advocates, school boards, tenants, people appealing to the Human Rights Branch, poor and elderly relying on tax credits, regional districts allegedly blocking development projects, instructors and students at colleges who elected representatives to their board of governors, new doctors, motor vehicle inspectors. “We’ve got them on the list,” sang the Socreds, in an update to Gilbert and Sullivan’s satire.

“The Bennett government created the climate to put together a whole raft of groups of people who never, ever really had the ability to get together before,” Munro observed.[1] And for a tumultuous few months, that tsunami bore down, horrifying some in the province, inspiring many others. General strike was the phrase of the day.

The Province, July 1983
Jack Munro, IWA-Canada president, 1981. Photo by David Paterson

Munro gagged at the prospect of a provincial general strike: “Goddamn it, man, we could bring the government down” (p. 54). Solidarity Coalition members replied: “Well, yeah, isn’t that the idea?” By the end of October, writes journalist Allen Garr, Munro and Jim Matkin, the head of the BC Employers’ Council, were commiserating with one another that Solidarity was “a monster out of control.”[2] But the bosses of big labour and big employers were not alone in their shared horror. The New Democratic Party, including members of the legislature and key party fixers like Gerry Scott, reports Garr, “were as nervous as organized labour that this protest was getting away from them” (p. 121). The lid of Pandora’s Box had to be closed.

With a general strike looming, on 13 November Munro flew to Bennett’s home in Kelowna, where the two sat down in his living room to restore order. The deal they dictated brought minor concessions on two of the 26 bills — benefitting public servants — and promised further talks on the remaining punitive package. But at the Solidarity Coalition office, reports a fired BCGEU member, Patsy George, “[w]e were all in tears. It was a horrible betrayal” (p. 180). A political tsunami had leaked into the sewer.

Bill Bennett and Jack Munro announce the Kelowna Accord, the deal to end Operation Solidarity, November 14, 1983. Mark Zuehlke photo, Vancouver Sun via communitystories.ca

David Spaner was a front-line observer of this high drama. Hired in 1983 at The Columbian, New Westminster’s daily newspaper, he took over the labour beat that summer, just as Solidarity erupted. He was immediately reporting on the only story that mattered in the province.

Aside from his time at The Columbian – coincidentally, closed by the paper’s owners two days after the fateful Kelowna Accord – Spaner has written for a number of newspapers, has published two books on film, and, in the late seventies and early eighties managed the Vancouver punk band, The Subhumans. These journalistic and cultural inclinations lead him at times to complicate an already-complex story by appearing at times to want to write a sweeping history of postwar Vancouver. Long excursions into the background of Solidarity activists – for some going back to before the Second World War — can be frustrating for the reader, who may often be asking why the author is relating so much. Occasionally, the relevance to Solidarity comes clear, but too frequently it isn’t.

Bennett and Munro in Kelowna. Photo by Colin McConnell, courtesy Toronto Star Archives

Given the political nature of the Solidarity story, on some key political issues Spaner appears to be beyond his depth. Take the meaning of coalition and its role in the five-month upsurge. Spaner tells us: “In order to understand the Solidarity Coalition, you should know the socialist coalition” (p. 64). He then embarks on a scattered history of socialism but pays scant attention to the concept of coalition. That’s disappointing, given the central role played by the amalgam of community, social justice and human rights groups that served as the left-leaning counterweight to the right-wing union bureaucrats running Operation Solidarity.

To Bennett, the Solidarity Coalition types were intent on exercising a “tyranny of the minority,” blocking the invasive surgery needed to restore the province’s economic health. Bennett’s hatred was evident, but the coalition’s supposed allies, union bureaucrats, were even more contemptuous. The irrepressible Munro expressed what other socially-conservative union heavyweights, and social conservatives in general, might not say openly. He derided Solidarity Coalition as “the Rural Lesbians’ Association … sitting next to the Gay Alliance, sitting next to the Urban fuckin’ Lesbians … making a decision to shut the province down.” He griped that to back up “causes that I don’t goddamned well agree with” he was expected to ask “our [BCFED union] people … to come off the job.”

Jack Munro, 1985. Craig Hodge photo. Courtesy Vancouver Sun
Wayman, The Face of Jack Munro (1986)

The key challenge facing any political coalition is leadership. At critical moments, such as 1983, how do popular forces – organized into many often-disparate groups – weld together democratic decision-making with effective strategic direction? And carry this off in the face of a state that is highly structured, centrally-led and capable of exerting immense coercive power? There was democracy aplenty in the Solidarity Coalition, but when a decisive response was needed to contradict the Kelowna Accord, the coalition dissolved. Regrettably, Spaner gives us no insight into this conundrum, and, if he asked them about it, he quotes none of the activists’ reflections.

The frailty of popular leadership should not be taken to mean that leadership was absent. Another trenchant unexplored issue in Solidarity is the methods and personnel of the counter-revolutionary leadership. Tom Wayman’s poetic excursion into the subject, The Face of Jack Munro, has inadvertently focused all attention on that mug’s ugly mug.[3] “How could it occur/ that direction of our struggle/ fell to one man?” Wayman asked.

Palmer, Solidarity (1987)

But Munro was nothing more than the face of a cabal determined to squelch any disruption to the status quo. The role played by social democrats – not just union officials, but also the NDP – in gutting the movement is taken up only in passing. Bryan Palmer argued in his 1987 history that Solidarity was “suppressed by social democracy and the labour bureaucracy.”[4] Spaner is content to point to the latter faction only. He quotes, for example, Communist Party activist Kim Zander, who states that Munro “did the bidding of a group of people,” a view shared by postal worker activist Marion Pollack (p. 193). Yet Spaner never probes the identities of these eminences grises, letting the reader believe they were exclusively conservative union execs. Left out of the picture is the NDP, which deserves far greater attention for its role in undermining the revolt. Any comprehensive history of Solidarity must be a social history of both the revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries.

Rush, We Have a Glowing Dream (1996)

Although not the only motivation for the NDP, one reason for its leadership’s rejection of a general strike was noted by Maurice Rush, then the BC leader of the Communist Party of Canada. He contended in his 1996 memoir that “there was a strong suspicion in the Solidarity movement” that NDP authorities dreaded the prospect of the Socreds collapsing under popular pressure. The NDP might then face a stirred-up populace intent on making even an NDP government satisfy its demands.[5] Not a happy prospect in the face of a stumbling BC economy and with the party led by a barely-smouldering former firebrand, Dave Barrett, who after the May 1983 election debacle had declared his intention to retire.

Another aspect missing in Solidarity is any critical examination of the general strike. No issue was more mythologized at the time, at once loathed and loved. It was a bogeyman to Howe Street and to social democrats and labour bureaucrats alike. Even today, writers who ought to know better repeat Munro’s claim that it would have been his union members, not Solidarity Coalition activists, who would have borne the costs of a general strike.[6] (In fact, no general strike would have succeeded without broad popular and working-class engagement. Moreover, significant sectors of the public, including teachers and students, were already on the streets – teachers illegally – in the days before the betrayal.) If general strike was a terror for some, for anarchists like Bob the Mutant (a name he gave himself) at La Quena Co-op Coffeehouse on The Drive it was nothing less than a get-out-of-jail-free card. Fears and hopes aside, what did general strike actually mean? On General Strike Morning, would Joe’s Coffeehouse on The Drive be open, to say nothing of Tim Hortons in Dawson Creek? And what about Day Ten, if we survived that long without a java fix? Whether Spaner asked his many interview subjects this and other disturbing questions we don’t know.

In its focus on the activists engaged in the coalition side of the movement, Solidarity differs from earlier histories, which have mostly addressed its labour aspects. But what Spaner doesn’t take up is any sustained inquiry into Solidarity’s link to the New Left and the impact of the defeat on what was by the 1980s an aging New Left. He does shine a light on some highlights of the New Left’s venerable history in the province, dating back to the first countercultural wave signalled by the founding of the poetry magazine TISH at UBC in 1961. That was followed in the mid-1960s by a series of leftist waves that briefly crested in groups like Progressive Workers, hippies, Maoists, Yippies, environmentalists, anarchists, even a short-lived terrorist escapade. All carried a broadly New Left agenda in Vancouver through to the early 1980s.

A crowd of 25,000 protest in Solidarity rally at the BC Legislature, July 1983. Photo courtesy Simon Fraser University Archives via The Tyee

Perpetually amorphous and marginal as it had been – and, indeed, had prided itself on remaining – in the summer of 1983 a New Left writ large appeared to be on the verge of unseating an elected provincial government through action in the streets. As Jack Munro put it, Bennett’s hubris had created a Frankenstein:

These groups of people all of a sudden find this fantastic power where people are talking about strikes in the public sector and general strikes in the private sector and all this. Shit, they thought, this is fuckin’ great. The same people who had never ever in their goddamned life … ever thought that they would sit down at an executive board and make these kinds of decisions.[7]

David Spaner

The tough guy premier almost did the unthinkable – hand real power to perpetual losers. Munro and his buddies had to smite the rabble to save BC. Social democrats had not been forced into such naked service to the rich since they armed themselves to slay the communists in the epic Cold War battles of the 1940s and 50s. Munro likely didn’t mind, but other social democrats must have thought it utterly crass to have to stoop to this unseemly duty.

And it was not Bennett but the rabble who paid the price. For them, the days after 13 November were glum indeed. Solidarity would have been strengthened by taking up a more sustained summary of the impact of the defeat, including the effect on the left in the long term.

Almost forty years on, a fiery political moment in a volatile province still awaits its defining history.

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Larry Hannant

Larry Hannant thrills to the hunt for history in the everyday, suspects that the only route to the conquest of Berlin is over the Stolperstein Pass, subscribes to Vincent Scully’s warning that “Everything in the past is always waiting, waiting to detonate.” He’s the author of All My Politics Are Poetry (Victoria: Yalla Press, 2019, reviewed here by Natalie Lang). His most recent book is an edited collection titled Bucking Conservatism: Alternative Stories of Alberta in the 1960s and 1970s (Athabasca University Press, 2021). Hannant taught aspects of human rights history for years at BC universities and colleges and is engaged in writing an anti-imperialist history of human rights. Editor’s note: Larry Hannant has also reviewed books by Pitman PotterSuchetana ChattopadhyayEve Lazarus, Christabelle Sethna & Steve HewittKate Bird, and Serge Alternês & Alec Wainman for The British Columbia Review; and he has contributed an essay, I’m not your man: Norman Bethune & women, and Letter from Victoria, concerning truckers’ gatherings in Victoria in January-March 2022.

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The British Columbia Review

Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

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ENDNOTES:

Solidarity historian Bryan Palmer, ca. 1985. Photo by Nelcya Delanoe. Courtesy nbmediacoop.org

[1] Quoted in Allen Garr, Tough Guy: Bill Bennett and the taking of British Columbia (Toronto: Key Porter, 1985), p. 141.

[2] Garr, Tough Guy, pp. 142-3.

[3] Tom Wayman, The Face of Jack Munro (Madeira Park: Harbour Publishing, 1986).

[4] Bryan Palmer, Solidarity: The Rise and Fall of an Opposition in British Columbia (Vancouver: New Star, 1987), p. 105. (Larry Hannant’s emphasis — ed.).

[5] Maurice Rush, We Have a Glowing Dream: Recollections of working-class and people’s struggles in B.C. 1935-1995 (Vancouver: Centre for Socialist Education, 1996), p. 147.

[6] Rod Mickleburgh, “The Uprising,” BC Bookworld, Spring 2022, p. 13.

[7] Quoted in Garr, Tough Guy, pp. 141-2.

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