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The passage of Bill 39 : reform and repression in British Columbia’s labour policy Knox, Paul Graham

Abstract

The British Columbia legislature passed in 1947 a new Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act. The act installed at the provincial level the modern system of labour relations, including certification of labour unions, a labour relations board and the government-supervised strike vote. The act was passed by a coalition government of Liberals and Conservatives, in response to a wave of strikes the preceding year which crippled, among others, the province's forest and mining industries. The legislation incorporated many restrictions on union activity sought by business spokesmen and gave a legal basis to the institutional status sought by union leaders. This study examines the passage of Bill 39 in relation to three themes: the importance of class structure in the politics of British Columbia, the role of the state in capitalist society, and the development of the west coast labour movement. The class and economic structure of the province during the 1940s is outlined and some links are shown between heavy dependence on resource extraction and low-level processing and the high incidence of labour unrest. The class bases of the political parties are isolated and their relationship to the industrial structure discussed. This material forms the background for a history of the wartime and post-war struggles between labour and employers in B.C. The strikes of 1946 are shown to have prompted employers to press the government for restrictive labour legislation. Considerable attention is also paid to the articulation of working-class demands for security and to the relationship between labour leaders and the Coalition labour minister, George Pearson. The discussion of the passage of Bill 39 and its aftermath shows how the influence of rural Tory elements in the Coalition led to the demise of the reformist tradition of the depression premier, Duff Pattullo. The influence of the labour situation on the election of a successor to Premier John Hart is discussed, and some insight into the workings of the coalition government is gained through an examination of the government's reaction to anti-Bill 39 strikes and protests. The concluding chapter draws on examples from the preceding historical material, to show that the state in a capitalist society must contain class conflict, through variously reformist or repressive methods, without challenging the system of wage-labour and profit. The role of political parties, the cabinet, the legislative assembly, the government bureaucracy and the judiciary in this process is analyzed. Finally, the response of the labour movement to state action is discussed, and it is suggested that radical political parties have yet to resolve in practice the apparent contradiction between working-class desires for security and the need for revolutionary social and economic change which they perceived.

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