BA Hons (Econ), 1969
"There were death threats, police patrolled my house. I had regular patrols up and down my street. It was tense, and it was exciting."
Cliff Andstein, is a veteran of the labour movement and a SFU Economics alumnus (BA honours 1969). Andstein dedicated his career to building opportunities for the working class. He was influenced by his SFU Economics professors, and developed critical thinking skills that served him throughout his life. In 1991, SFU recognized Andstein’s success with an Outstanding Alumni Achievement Award in Professional Achievement.
Andstein attended SFU in the 1960’s, when SFU was a brand new university. Fascinating instructors such as Helen Moore at Vancouver Community College, motivated Andstein to change his path to economics from electrical engineering. Other economics faculty such as Lawrence Boland, Mahmood Khan, and Michael Lebowitz along with poet Robin Blaser in the English Department impacted Andstein by introducing concepts that he still remembers, almost 50 years later. He believed that his SFU education refined his critical thinking skills and he said “you had to have clarity to work with economics models.”
Andstein’s interdisciplinary degree reinforced the importance of critical thinking and he said, “all of them [SFU courses and instructors] lead me to a particular worldview which was not accepting anything on the left or the right without questioning it.” As the son of immigrants, Andstein’s values stem from his parents. “I inherited a lot of their working class values”, he said, “Because what motivates me now is abuse of power, whether it is by the state or by any person.” His strong values and skills from his SFU degree were a good fit for his career, lobbying and campaigning for worker’s rights.
For many years in the 1980’s and 1990’s Andstein was the chief negotiator for the BC Government and Service Employees’ Union. During that time he helped negotiate important advances such as pay equity for provincial government employees and important advances for community health and community service workers. Achieving equitable results was always one of his objectives.
Cliff Andstein played an important role at the Canadian Labour Congress, (CLC) where, as the Executive Assistant to the President he functioned similar to a deputy minster role in the government. The fifty-five unions that make up the membership of the CLC represent workers in every job, sector and region of Canada. Andstein worked closely with the President on strategies to protect the rights of the 3.3 million workers across Canada who belong to the Congress. “What’s the best way to deal with that? Do we do a rally? Do we go yell at buildings for a while? Or, do we start working smart?” Andstein said that he thought of various ways and approaches to complex labour issues from the prospective of multiple stakeholders.
Andstein believed that he made a difference and said “The best part was that it is a visionary labour movement, making the CLC much more effective in advocating for things like improvements to the Canada Pension Plan, protection for workers when companies go bankrupt, lobbying for the end to the mining and export of asbestos, improved health and safety regulations and protection of the right of a worker to join a union without intimidation. I believed we accomplished a lot during that time.”
Current students might be aware of protest movements such as Black Lives Matter or Idle No More. Due to the work of Andstein and others, there were other significant movements in Canada through the efforts of unions and community organizations.
In 1983, Andstein participated in a momentous social and political event in BC -- Operation Solidary -- which was a turbulent time in BC’s labour movement history, and is still crystal clear to him, even after 33 years. The Social Credit Government, led by Bill Bennet, introduced 26 bills in the legislature, and the reaction lead to a series of demonstrations that pulled together a coalition of unions and community groups. Andstein was on the front lines of the movement.
“It was just a massive attack on what is considered today, general middle of the road things, The right to collective bargaining, services, human rights arbitration, tenant rights, they were going after the whole thing.” Andstein said about the impact of the bills. “The fight back was immediate and there was a whole lot of emotion. When you have groups galvanize together you have a popular movement.”
“We planned a rally at Empire Stadium.” He said, “we booked the stadium before the leadership of the labour movement had made a decision to participate. We didn’t care, a number of us were pushing from below.”
Over 35,000 people came to Empire Stadium, which once stood at the Pacific National Exhibition grounds, making it the largest rally in BC history. He said, “I was there very early in the morning. It was empty. We were just getting ready, organizing the speakers, and all of a sudden it started to fill up.“
“In November, there was a schedule of walk outs by unions planned for different sectors – the government, transportation, energy, retail, education and public services – across the province over a three week period. It was a bit frightening, quite frankly, but challenging and exciting.” Death threats were received by union leaders such as Andstein and police patrolled his home. Empty union office buildings were shot at during the night. Andstein said, “And I think to this day, we could have negotiated a better settlement with the government on the legislation.”
However, a deal was struck on Nov 13 1983 that ended further strikes. There was an immediate pushback as many community groups and union members felt they could have gotten a better deal.
After 33 years of experience, Andstein can reflect on what went wrong during Operation Solidarity. “The leadership didn’t have the experience to build a campaign and a coalition with community groups. They were not able to figure out what the “ask” was, what is it that we needed and how do you know when you are there? All the same things that apply in collective bargaining, what are you asking for and what’s it going to take to settle and how do you know when you got it? We didn’t have those discussions”.
“What were the victories in BC? Not as great as we wanted. But, a lot of the legislation did not pass. A lot of new activist leadership emerged in the unions and community organizations. And, others across the country tell us that our fight, the first one against Thatcherism and Reaganomics caused other governments to either withdraw or modify their plans. To that extent it was successful.
-Written by the Department of Economics
Published August 2016
Submitted by: Rebecca Ho