Solidarity Prince George Style
Operation Solidarity in 1983 was a province-wide movementThe weather forecast for Thursday, July 7, 1983 in Prince George, B.C. was for heavy thunderstorms in the evening. No one expected a political tornado would be unleashed earlier that day when the newly re-elected Social Credit (Socred) government introduced its provincial budget in Victoria. The local newspaper predicted the budget would include “major service cuts”. Instead, 26 pieces of legislation slashed core social programs and hacked away at union rights. The Human Rights Branch and the Human Rights Commission were eliminated and its staff fired. Rent controls and tenant protections were abolished. The government had new powers to fire elected school boards. It stripped public sector union members’ seniority rights. Public employers could fire workers without cause.
Budget Impact on Prince George WorkersIn Vancouver, an energized coalition of unions and community groups was swiftly formed by the B.C. Federation of Labour under the twin banners of Operation Solidarity and the Solidarity Coalition. The story of Operation Solidarity—though it spanned only four months—has been deconstructed ever since, though mostly from a lower mainland perspective. The Solidarity experience took place in every community around the province and each community has its own story to tell. In the central interior city of Prince George, shocked members of the B.C. Government Employees Union (BCGEU) lost their jobs the same day the budget was introduced. Four workers who mediated consumer complaints were fired. Four others who assisted renters with complaint were axed. Two human rights officers were gone. Jack Heinrich, a Prince George MLA and Minister of Education warned teachers they should expect to lose jobs.
Information pickets went up almost immediately around Prince George government offices. The B.C. Federation of Labour considered calling a general strike.
After 12 years of loyalty and hard work, Wayne Smith, 42, had no idea the provincial government no longer wanted him. “It came as a complete surprise,” said the former recreation consultant for the Provincial Secretary’s office in Prince George as he was cleaning up his office.1
Prince George Operation SolidarityIn Vancouver, under the province-wide union umbrella of Operation Solidarity, local Solidarity Coalitions were formed to represent community groups and individuals who were outraged by the attack on social programs. In Prince George, the BCGEU Area office on 4th Avenue became the de facto headquarters of Prince George Operation Solidarity. There was no appetite for a separate community coalition in Prince George as there was in Vancouver. Instead, community members participated in the union-led Prince George Solidarity. Union members were booked off on union leave to fight the budget. The Prince George BCGEU office was flooded with organizers from around the province. A film crew arrived to document the local fight. Organizers set to work canvassing, assisting unions who were taking strike votes and coordinating volunteers who wanted to join the fightback. Resources were put into organizing a large public rally. Patsy George, a Vancouver social worker fired as part of the 1983 budget, worked for the Solidarity Coalition in Prince George that summer.
“Repression, not Restraint”On August 4, a parade led by BCGEU President Norm Richards marched down the main highway to a standing-room-only crowd waiting at Vanier Hall. The Secretary-Treasurer of the B.C. Federation of Labour Mike Kramer was there too. Prince George’s Diane Wood, 2nd Vice President of the BCGEU had learned just days before that she was fired from her government job. “The government’s course is not one of restraint but of repression,” Wood told the rally. Prince George unions, including those outside of the B.C. Federation of Labour, showed solidarity. Eighty-seven union members at two pulp mills who attended the August 8 rally received warning letters from their employers. They picketed the pulp mills down for a day. Another one-day protest was held on September 21. Union members in government, hospitals and city government walked out at noon; teachers closed their classrooms at 2 p.m. Prince George Firefighters went to local shopping centres to hand out Solidarity balloons. Other unions volunteered to leaflet local businesses to gain support. In Social Credit strongholds like Prince George, fighting the unprecedented assault on unions and social programs required a degree of bravery. Said Steve Koerner, a staff representative with the Hospital Employees’ Union, “It took a lot of courage in that environment. But we had no choice but to fight the legislation. We had done nothing to deserve it.” 2 Forty years on, Operation Solidarity left its mark on the historical memory of British Columbia’s labour movement. In Prince George there were long-term political consequences. The Socred dynasty began to crack. Local school trustee Lois Boone, a BCGEU member with labour council endorsement, was a voice for teachers and parents throughout Operation Solidarity and in the months that followed. Raising her profile by speaking out against cuts to public education and promising to never cross a Solidarity picket line, Boone’s 1986 election victory bucked a provincial trend. She became the first NDP MLA elected from Prince George in more than 11 years. The victory was due in no small part to the profile she gained speaking out during Operation Solidarity. 1 Spilker, John. “Secure Job Ends”. Prince George Citizen, 15 July 1983, p. 3 2 Mickleburgh, Rod. On the Line: The History of the British Columbia Labour Movement, Harbour Publishing, 2018. p. 218