Analysis
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Labour + Industry

Rifts Healed, BC Fed Aims for More Private Sector Members

‘More united than we’ve ever been,’ says new leader Laird Cronk.

By Rod Mickleburgh 7 Dec 2018 | TheTyee.ca

Rod Mickleburgh was a journalist with the Globe and Mail for 22 years. His most recent book is On the Line: A History of the British Columbia Labour Movement, which he spoke about at the 2018 BC Federation of Labour convention.

Way back in “the foggy ruins of time,” to quote Bob Dylan, the BC Federation of Labour decided to hold its annual convention in Penticton.

Six labour reporters, including me, were dispatched to cover proceedings in Peach City, as I recall, despite the cost. My stories ran on the front page of the Vancouver Sun. Nowadays, it seems like a fairy tale.

But some things haven’t changed. Solidarity comes and goes, and division is ever lurking within the B.C. labour movement. At that long ago gathering in Penticton, I was nosing around for signs of the split between some of the big unions and the smaller affiliates that supported the incumbent leadership of Len Guy. The factions had engaged in a bruising, bare-knuckle fight at the previous convention. Wounds were far from healed. When I asked Guy, a scrappy, hard-nosed, air force vet about it, he dismissed my suggestion that the labour movement was still at odds: “It’s a love-in, you sausage.”

I couldn’t help but be reminded of Len Guy’s memorable words from 40 years ago as I took in last week’s 58th convention of the BC Federation of Labour. After leadership scraps in 2012 and 2014, followed by an uneasy truce in 2016, this convention also proclaimed itself as one big love-in. With two new leaders, both acclaimed, unity was definitely flavour of the week.

“We leave here stronger and more united than we’ve ever been,” trumpeted CUPE BC president Paul Faoro. Echoed Stephen Hunt, district director of the Steelworkers: “We are all on the same wave length. (This leadership) can bring us together like never before.” Freshly minted president Laird Cronk told applauding delegates: “There is nothing we can’t achieve when we stand together, and we seem to be together today.”

All three had had issues with former fed head Jim Sinclair during his long, record run as president, and they opposed former BC Teachers’ Federation president Irene Lanzinger’s bid to succeed Sinclair when he stepped down in 2014 and backed her candidacy. In fact, it was Cronk’s partner, Amber Hockin, who took on Lanzinger for the head job, losing out by a mere 57 votes.

(Incidentally, Hockin is currently deputy chief of staff in the office of Premier John Horgan, a connection to the federation leadership that might prompt mischief-makers to raise an eyebrow or two. Cronk dismisses that out of hand. “We are a modern-day, professional couple. We know what we’re doing, and we both live within the rules of our organizations.”)

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Outgoing BC Fed president Irene Lanzinger, the first woman to lead the organization, says goodbye. Photo by Joshua Berson.

They, and others, felt that the federation under Sinclair had spent too much time on broader social issues, rather than the more bread-and-butter matters that affect individual union members. The public, long deprived of regular labour reporting, was mostly oblivious to this in-house division. But it tended to hamper the movement’s capacity to mount concerted campaigns. Lanzinger smoothed many of the bumps during her effective four years at the helm. Now, it’s internal peace everywhere. The forces of disgruntlement are happy to see the affable Cronk take over, and there has been no carping from the other side.

This did not occur by accident. When Lanzinger, 64, announced in early September that she would not seek a third term, Fed officers determined to settle on a pair of “unity candidates” to avoid another election fight. They rallied around Cronk, B.C.-based national representative of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, who was eager to run, and Sussanne Skidmore of the BC Government and Service Employees’ Union, tabbed to replace Aaron Ekman as secretary-treasurer.

Although neither had supported her or Sinclair in previous elections, Lanzinger said she is absolutely fine with the choices. “Strong leaders are needed at the federation, and that has happened,” she said in an interview, as the end of her time at the top ticked down.

Cementing the harmony is the best gift a BC Federation of Labour could have: a labour-friendly NDP government in Victoria. When he showed up, Premier Horgan was greeted like a rock star. He apologized to the convention for taking time to make it to the podium because of “all the hugging and kissing going on.” He added, with a grin: “I understand it’s been a while since a premier came to visit you.” Horgan proceeded to rattle off the many achievements of his activist government during its first 16 months in power, punctuated by resounding ovations for repealing the Liberals’ notorious legislation that devastated contract rights of unionized hospital workers and mandating union labour for all large public infrastructure projects.

There were also big cheers for Labour Minister Harry Bains, who has promised significant changes to both employment standards and the provincial labour code this spring.

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Premier John Horgan was treated like a rock star at the 2018 convention. Photo by Joshua Berson.

“Electing a government that shares our values and listens to us is a force for unity,” said Lanzinger, adding it was almost enough to tempt her to stick around for two more years. A career teacher, she leaves the job not only as the first public sector president of the half-million strong federation, but also its first woman leader. While not unhappy with the incoming leaders, she confessed to some disappointment she was not succeeded by another woman. “It seems like we had 60 years of men, four years of a woman, and here we go again.”

Lanzinger did well in the job, establishing herself as a forceful spokesperson on social and union issues and driving the ultimately successful campaign for a $15 an hour minimum wage. She brought a rare human touch to the rigour of leading organized labour, regularly tearing up over concerns close to her heart. Even in that last interview, as she spoke about the honour and her love for being a voice for workers and greater justice and equality, Lanzinger faltered, “I think I’m going to cry…”

No one from the building trades has headed the federation since the resolute Jim Kinnaird, also from the IBEW, who died in office in 1983.

Cronk, 53, brings a different style and approach. His varied career includes a tumultuous time co-ordinating the construction unions’ fierce stand in 1994 against Macmillan Bloedel’s deliberate use of a non-union contractor to work on a pulp mill expansion in Port Alberni. The unions resorted to mass pickets, defiance of court injunctions and one violent flare-up in a vain attempt to get non-union workers off the job. All told a hundred picketers were arrested, convicted of contempt of court and sentenced to 14 days in jail. The trades were also hit with $1 million in damages. Looking back, Cronk said he has no regrets over the fight, despite the outcome. “I’d rather go out in a blaze of glory, than a puff of smoke.”

Nevertheless, Cronk believes strongly in reaching out and looking for solutions on highly charged, difficult issues. “That’s always been my modus operandi,” he explained this week. He wants to apply that on a big divide that continues to bedevil the labour movement, for all the unity talk. As a member of the building trades, Cronk looks at controversial projects such as Site C and the Kinder Morgan pipeline as a source of high-paying jobs. Other trade unionists, notably in the public sector, consider them serious risks to the environment.

Cronk is frank about the jobs/environment split within the union movement. It’s real, he acknowledged. “Some unions have taken positions against Kinder Morgan and before that, Site C. But we also have affiliates, and I come from the building trades, that want those jobs.” Cronk pointed out that most building trades oppose heavy bitumen going across the ocean, “but the reality is that if Kinder Morgan is going to be built, it only makes sense that the workers are unionized and certified trades people, along with registered apprentices, to make it as safely built as possible.”

His solution is to look ahead. “We rarely win protest battles shouting at empty buildings or steel tubes,” Cronk said. “Instead of resenting each other, why don’t we shift our attention to demand, instead of yelling at supply?” By that he means establishing qualified trades for building infrastructure needed for such emerging energy alternatives as solar and tidal and electric car charging stations.

Yet a more immediate focus is likely to be the significant decline in private sector unionization, precipitated by the rapidly changing nature of work and the gig economy. CUPE’S Paul Faoro says that’s a key reason he supported Cronk for president. “The public sector is doing fine but the private sector is going down” he said in an interview. “That’s where we need to put our lens, along with apprenticeships and women in trades. Laird is a perfect fit for the job.”

Cronk says he’s up for it. On day one of his new job, he arrived on the dot of 8.30 a.m., found the light switch and got down to work. He’s that kind of guy. Like Faoro, he sees bringing more workers into unions as a primary goal. “I am passionate about organizing. I’m not coming in here not to move that union dial forward,” he said. Self-confident with a capital S, Cronk wants to make a difference. “I want the federation to be better, stronger when my time is done here. One thing for sure: I will not fail for lack of effort.”

Two final matters of note. Secretary-treasurer Sussanne Skidmore is the first openly gay trade unionist to hold one of the federation’s top offices. “I describe myself as a queer woman,” she said. “It is part of who I am and what brought me to activism.”

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Lonely labour reporter no more? Writer Rod Mickleburgh with Alex McKeen of StarMetro Vancouver. Photo by Joshua Berson.

And maybe, just maybe, like vinyl, labour reporting is coming back. For the first time in eons, there was a full-time, mainstream labour reporter covering the convention. Alex McKeen from StarMetro Vancouver was there all week, tweeting, posting photos and videos and writing stories. I was no longer lonely at the media table.  [Tyee]

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