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The Mellowing of Laird Cronk

The ex-BC Federation of Labour head on boxing, politics and working with an NDP government.

Zak Vescera 7 Dec 2022TheTyee.ca

Zak Vescera is The Tyee’s labour reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

Laird Cronk went from middleweight boxer to labour leader, played a leading role in one of the fiercest union-company battles in modern B.C. history and spending four years as BC Federation of Labour president.

He ended his career with the federation in late November, wearing a Chicago Bears jersey, with a plush dog on the podium in front of him, extolling the virtues of bystander intervention training for men.

“I could punch hard like a mule, had a chin that was really good, but I wasn’t very talented,” said Cronk, about his short-lived amateur boxing career in his hometown of Nanaimo. He learned the key was what happened before you enter the ring.

“If you haven’t done the prep, it shows.”

Cronk retires from the federation after a term that saw substantive policy wins for the organization’s roughly 50 affiliate unions, who collectively represent more than half a million workers across the province.

But Cronk says his real focus has been uniting the labour movement after 16 years of BC Liberal government where the federation was sidelined, divided and fuming.

“We’ve done some terrific things under undue circumstances,” Cronk said in his last address to federation delegates at their convention last month.

“It can have tension, but we’re all pulling in the same direction.”

Cronk, an electrician, started in union activities at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 230 on Vancouver Island. He quickly rose to become a key figure in the local building trades council, where he became the de facto spokesman for workers in a grim 1994 labour battle with forestry company MacMillan Bloedel. The company hired a non-union contractor to work on a pulp mill expansion in Port Alberni and the unions responded with mass pickets and defied court injunctions.

About 100 union protesters were arrested and Cronk was thrust into the headlines, though he was never himself taken into custody.

That action would follow him. When Cronk landed a job as an employment standards officer with the provincial government a few years later, the BC Liberals argued it was inappropriate. The NDP government of the day accused them of McCarthyism. Then-Liberal MLA Gary Collins said in a 1998 debate that it was in fact “Jimmy Hoffaism” — an apparent comparison with the American labour leader and convicted criminal widely believed to have been murdered by the mafia.

At one point, Cronk offered to resign; his boss declined. Cronk kept working, at employment standards and then later as a national representative of the IBEW.

He found his moment in 2018, when the top job at the BC Federation of Labour was up for grabs. “We were in a really interesting time. We had some rifts to heal. But the stars were aligning,” Cronk said.

The federation, once one of the most powerful organizations in B.C., had seen its influence decline and its membership deplete during the BC Liberals’ lengthy term of power.

Then the BC NDP squeaked out a win in 2017.

“We’ve got this Halley’s Comet of a government that might actually let us in the room,” Cronk said.

But it was a different fight now. Unions, Cronk said, were divided after 16 years on the outside. Many wanted the minority NDP government to bring in wholesale policy changes that Cronk knew were not realistic. “The labour movement had been yelling at government for everything they did for 16 and 17 years,” Cronk said.

So the old boxer put away the gloves and put together a blueprint. Union officers would focus their demands on a few key policy points. They wouldn’t just lobby Labour Minister Harry Bains, but other key officials. “There’s no point if you have the minister of labour on your side if he walks into cabinet and no one understand what he’s saying,” Cronk said. The federation would be less about protest, and more about progress.

“We needed to build a level of trust with government that we would be respectfully critical of them… we were not there to get information so we could go and yell and scream at them on the street,” Cronk said.

The policy wins for the federation have been plentiful. The province has guaranteed sick days, made union organizing easier and has the highest minimum wage in the country.

That’s not to say Cronk doesn’t have unfinished business. The federation has continuously pushed for WorkSafeBC to cover benefits for injured workers until their death; the current cutoff is age 60, and new legislation would raise it to 65.

“Your disability doesn’t go away when you turn 65,” Cronk said flatly.

He also hopes to see action soon on what the federation calls “misclassification” — workers considered contractors who may actually fit the definition of employees. “I wouldn’t be surprised if in the next six months to year we see something come to fruition on that,” Cronk said.

A turning point for Cronk came early in his tenure, when Sussanne Skidmore, then the secretary-general of the federation, encouraged him to take a bystander intervention course geared towards men in the construction industry. One of its goals is teaching men to intervene when harassment affects women.

“This thing changes lives,” Cronk said. It encouraged him to push back against a certain macho, tough guy attitude he says is part and parcel of many construction sites.

He decided not to run for a third two-year term, he said, because he didn’t want to overstay his welcome. “I gave myself every opportunity to talk myself out of retirement, and I failed at that miserably,” Cronk said.

His successor is Skidmore, a BC General Employees’ Union executive who is the first openly queer person to lead the federation.

Cronk doesn’t have much advice for her; since their joint terms began four years ago, he says, she has been ready for the job.

“I didn’t think anything else needed to be said,” Cronk said.

Cronk is still a fighter; he just doesn’t need his fists. By most estimates, he leaves the federation stronger than he found it.

“What could be a better job than that? Nothing,” Cronk said.  [Tyee]

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