Opinion

BC Labour Is Now Led by Women, and They've Got Plans

Provincial pioneers Irene Lanzinger and Joey Hartman on the year ahead.

By Tom Sandborn 24 Jan 2015 | TheTyee.ca

Tom Sandborn has covered labour and health policy news for the Tyee for more than a decade. His commentary pieces on these beats run here twice a month. Find his Tyee articles here. He welcomes feedback and topic suggestions at tos65@telus.net.

''As we go marching, marching, we're standing proud and tall. The rising of the women means the rising of us all. No more the drudge and idler, ten that toil where one reposes, But a sharing of life's glories, bread and roses, bread and roses.'' -- ''Bread and Roses,'' James Oppenheim, 1911

Two of B.C. 's highest profile women in labour, Irene Lanzinger and Joey Hartman, now lead the BC Federation of Labour and the Vancouver and District Labour Council. Both are the first women to hold the top post in the history of their organizations.

When I first started paying attention to the Canadian labour movement in the 1960s, women labour leaders were few and far between. The typical labour leader in those days was a big, often heavy-bellied white alpha male, combative and profane. Perhaps Jack Munro, the long-serving and, in the end, very controversial leader of the International Woodworkers of America Western Canada operations was the most perfect example of this form, "The Labour Leader as Tough Guy."

But like every other structure in modern society, the labour movement was influenced by the rise of a new wave of feminist organizing in the second half of the 20th century. As the evolution of the post-war economy drove more women into paid employment, and as organizing drives in the public service and service industries within the private sector (both typically rich with female workers) succeeded, more women became union members and leaders.

In the meantime, the heavy industry and resource extraction jobs (more typically all or predominantly male) that once made up the bulk of organized workers in the private sector dwindled beneath a flood tide of globalization, run-away capital and anti-union legislation. Between 1997 and 2011, men's representation in unions fell from more than 54 per cent to 48 per cent, and women's involvement in unions increased from 45 per cent to 52 per cent.

Following these trends, the demographic face of union membership has become far more diverse, female and non-white than it was in the days when Munro and other great thundering beasts shook the ground. Canada's first female head of a provincial labour federation, Nadine Hunt, was elected in Saskatchewan in 1978, and the Canadian Labour Congress chose its first female president, Shirley Carr, in 1986.

Today, three of the largest unions affiliated with the BC Federation of Labour -- the BCGEU, HSA, and FPSE -- have female presidents. Eight of the federation's 23 officers are women, including Lanzinger, who was elected president of the organization late last year in a tight race against another female candidate, Amber Hockin. Hartman has now led the Vancouver and District Labour Council, one of the 111 local councils affiliated to the Canadian Labour Congress, for four years, and is expected to be re-elected next month to another one-year term.

So what plans do these two pioneers have for the year ahead? Both Lanzinger and Hartman recently took time to speak with me about future prospects for their groups, for the labour movement and for women.

'We'll up our game'

BC Fed President Lanzinger said the next federal election will be very important for the future of Canada and its workers. ''We plan on being very active in the upcoming elections,'' she said. ''We’ll up our game.''

On the provincial front, Lanzinger noted that the Fed supports the NDP, but that affiliated member unions are ''on a spectrum. Some are actively linked to the NDP, and others are non-partisan.''

Lanzinger is headed to Victoria in early March for a lobbying event that will bring 25 union leaders and activists to the capital to meet with MLAs and argue for an improved minimum wage, better provisions for trades training, and changes in labour legislation as it applies to ''successorship rights,'' or the question of whether a union contract continues to cover workers when the company they work for is sold to new management.

She said the Fed is actively supporting the call for a life-saving shuttle bus on the notorious Highway of Tears, where many low-income, First Nations female hitchhikers have been killed or gone missing. The group is also backing recent calls for an inquiry into the scandalously high number of First Nations women who have gone missing or been murdered across Canada, she said.

In addition to influencing the next federal election and legislative action by the province, Lanzinger emphasized that organizing new workers into unions was high on her agenda, calling it ''one of our major goals.'' While rule changes brought in by the BC Liberals have made organizing harder, she said the BC Fed will conduct two organizing institutes this year and encourage affiliated unions to reach out and organize new members.

''I want everyone to know that the labour movement is alive and well, and up for the struggle,'' Lanzinger said.

Turning 'credibility' into 'presence'

Meanwhile, over at the Vancouver and District Labour Council, Hartman similarly identified anti-labour bias from the current federal and provincial governments as ongoing challenges for her leadership. Prime Minister Stephen Harper, she said, has worked to ''deconstruct civil society,'' leaving workers with ''a lot to worry about.''

This year, Hartman plans to organize new members for affiliated unions and campaigns to influence electoral politics at municipal governments within its area, which includes not only the city of Vancouver but also the city and district of North Vancouver, West Vancouver and Richmond.

Hartman said she hopes to improve the council's ongoing contact with municipal figures between elections. ''We already have a lot of credibility,'' she said, ''and now we need to have more of a presence.''

Hartman expects her organization will continue its support for an improved provincial minimum wage and for the Living Wage for Families in B.C. campaign. She'll also work on a campaign for reforms of the Employment Standards Act, which she said has afforded less protection for workers since it was amended early in the BC Liberals' term.

Hartman is excited about her group's efforts to place union speakers in schools to educate students about the role of the labour movement. She noted that the council continues to play a role in the Metro Vancouver Alliance, a labour/faith group/community group body that unites organizations across many sectors to lobby for agreed upon reforms.

The council will campaign to support the Yes side in the upcoming transit referendum, and for climate justice initiatives that will protect the environment while shifting workers increasingly to ''green jobs,'' Hartman said.

What women bring

I asked both leaders what more women leadership in their movement would mean for the future.

Hartman said she thinks that women tend to exercise a ''more inclusive'' style of leadership. Lanzinger observed that women were beginning to take their rightful place as labour leaders, ''and about time too,'' she said.

Women do bring a different voice and attitude to leadership, Lanzinger said, and by paving the way, women like her and Hartman encourage others to step into top roles.

(Lanzinger is the first labour leader I've interviewed who cites her own master's degree thesis as a work of feminist scholarship. She investigated the relatively low number of women active in physics for the paper.)

I predict we are going to see a whole new generation of women emerging as leaders in the labour movement over the next decades, and it may well be one of the factors in the revitalization of the movement for a new century.

"The rising of the women means the rising of us all," indeed.  [Tyee]

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