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Lanzinger Edges Hockin to Lead BC Fed

First woman president pledges 'a good and strong relationship with every union in this province.'

Rod Mickleburgh 28 Nov 2014TheTyee.ca

Rod Mickleburgh was a journalist at The Globe and Mail for 22 years, until leaving the paper last year. Before joining the Globe he was a labour reporter for 16 years, in the days when there were full-time labour reporters in B.C. Read his previous Tyee stories here.

The winds of change blew through the BC Federation of Labour this week, but when the huffing and puffing stopped, the outspoken, hands-on, activist leadership approach of outgoing president Jim Sinclair still stood.

It was a near thing, however. Irene Lanzinger, the Fed's secretary-treasurer for the past four years and strongly backed by Sinclair, squeaked past challenger Amber Hockin by a mere 57 votes among the record 2,217 ballots cast by convention delegates.

Despite the clear split on the convention floor, it was a rewarding, historic victory for the 60-year-old former math and science teacher. She is the first Fed president from a public sector union, the first teachers' union representative to lead a labour federation in Canada, and, most significantly, the first woman to head the 500,000-member labour organization in its 104-year history.

When Hockin, Pacific Regional Director for the Canadian Labour Congress, graciously pledged her support for Lanzinger and noted her status as the Fed's first ever woman president, delegates reacted with a loud, sustained roar.

"It's about time," Lanzinger told reporters. "Women are…actually a majority of union of workers in this province. So it's time for a woman, and I'm delighted that's what happened here."

Yet the result was a surprise to many, given the high profile support for Hockin by some of the Federation's biggest unions. They included the 60,000-member B.C. Government and Service Employees Union, which employed a hard press to ensure that all its allotted delegates were present, CUPE, the large Local 378 of the Canadian Office and Professional Employees Union, the Steelworkers and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

Their leaders had been gunning for Sinclair, arguing that it was time for a change at the top. They wanted a closer relationship with the NDP and a more effective emphasis by the Fed on trade union bread and butter issues, such as organizing. In a debate between the two candidates Wednesday afternoon, Hockin reminded delegates that the rate of unionization has fallen faster in B.C. than anywhere else in Canada.

There was also a backdrop of personality clashes and feuds that often erupt between labour leaders behind the scenes. One told me that the Federation, to be effective, needs to be more than "just a media show."

This growing internal opposition prompted Sinclair to step away from the job he held and loved for 15 years, uncertain of his re-election chances. He had only to look at what happened at the Canadian Labour Congress earlier this year, when long-time president Ken Georgetti was knocked off by Hassan Yussuf. Like Sinclair, Georgetti had spent 15 years at the helm, and many unions there, too, sought fresh leadership. Sinclair did not want to suffer the fate of his predecessor at the Federation of Labour.

'Share with those who don't have a voice'

But Lanzinger was helped by the militant tone of the convention. The first two days were marked by a celebration of Sinclair's unprecedented tenure. Supporters, Lanzinger and Sinclair himself passionately reiterated his belief that the Fed must cast its lot with the struggles of all workers, not just those with a union card. The ringing rhetoric often produced prolonged ovations, which might have swayed some undecided delegates, caught up in the fervour of the moment.

And Lanzinger had some big unions in her camp as well, notably her own BCTF and the large Hospital Employees Union.

In an interview with The Tyee shortly after her tense, emotional triumph, Lanzinger pledged to continue Sinclair's leadership policies.

"As an organization of unions with resources, we need to share those resources with people who don't have a voice, and those are non-unionized workers," she said. "That's an attitude that will continue under my leadership. For me, that's one of the most important things the Fed does, and that kind of federation of labour and that attitude will continue under my leadership."

The Federation's occasionally less-than-comfortable relationship with the NDP also came up for re-examination. If elected, Hockin had vowed to seek closer ties with organized labour's traditional political ally. Her promise seemed a little ill-timed to some, however, given that the NDP, itself, is reviewing the issue, with growing numbers wondering if the party should further distance itself from the labour movement.

Lanzinger said the Fed has a good working relationship with the NDP and it will continue to support the party as the best option for representing working people. But she added: "My first responsibility is to the workers of this province, and when that means I need to be tough on the NDP, I will. We are a labour movement first."

Divisions to heal

Her first priority may well be trying to heal the divisions that have festered in recent years under Sinclair. While this contest was far from the fierce blood-baths that characterized some Fed conventions of the past, feelings did run high. A united federation is always a stronger federation.

Lanzinger's quieter tone may reap benefits, as she reaches out to those disaffected unions. "I want to have a good and strong relationship with every union in this province, big and small. So I will be working hard on that," she said.

The Fed emerges from this pivotal convention without Sinclair's leadership for the first time in 15 years. Things will no doubt be different. For one, Lanzinger will certainly not be bellowing into a mic with quite the bombastic force of her predecessor, and protests may be quieter, without Sinclair's loud, passionate, militant rhetoric, heavy on class struggle. But the course the Federation has steered since 1999, speaking out forcefully against injustice, shows no sign of change.

One postscript: the future of the Federation may lie with a young man named Aaron Ekman. He was handily elected to replace Irene Lanzinger as secretary-treasurer, the Fed's number two officer. And, like Lanzinger, he, too, made history as the Federation's first northern-based trade unionist to reach such high office. Ekman has been living and working in Prince George as the BCGEU's northern regional coordinator. He ran with Hockin, but the Sinclair/Lanzinger forces decided not to oppose him for the post. Twice fired for trying to organize his work force and a forceful, articulate speaker, Ekman may represent the generational change the labour movement so badly needs.  [Tyee]

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