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BC Politics

Christy Clark's Union Maid Moment

Did our hard-hat premier just defend the 'right to organize?'

Rod Mickleburgh 5 Mar

Rod Mickleburgh was a journalist at the Globe and Mail for 22 years, until leaving the paper last year. He is currently freelancing and writing a blog where this article first appeared. 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.

That Christy Clark can sure be a funny premier. And I don’t mean Hamish jokes. Take the recent flare-up over who gets to build that farm-flooding, massive Site C dam in northeastern B.C.

Until Monday, attempts by the province’s once-powerful construction unions to secure a fair crack at the work had received no more than the bureaucratic equivalent of a bucket of warm spit from the powers that be at BC Hydro and the Liberal government’s own representatives. Not only was Hydro insisting on a construction site open to union and non-union contractors, which was not all that surprising, the Crown corporation wanted to ban the building trades from even trying to organize dam workers who were not unionized. Unions? Unions? Don’t need no stinking unions.

It was all very reminiscent of the distaste for union labour that prevailed during the 10-year premiership of Gordon Campbell. Egged on all the way by Phil Hochstein of the strident, anti-union Independent Contractors and Businesses Association, the once-effective network of skilled apprenticeship programs, which had strong union involvement, was essentially gutted during the Campbell years.

As the dire shortage of skilled workers became increasingly acute, however, Christy Clark recognized the situation for the disaster it was and brought construction unions back into the apprenticeship fold. Not only that, our hard-hat premier seemed to strike a non-Shirley bond with the union trades folk, who have shared a podium with her often enough to cause some disquiet in the ranks of the NDP. Under Gordon Campbell, they couldn’t get the time of day.

So, when Hydro unveiled its anti-union model for the multi-billion dollar Site C project, Tom Sigurdson, executive director of the B.C. and Yukon Building and Construction Trades Council, wasn’t too concerned. Surely, everything could be resolved with a bit of straight-forward palaver. After all, wasn’t he a friend of the premier?

Union, schmunion

But Sigurdson underestimated who was driving Hydro’s policy. Many have ties going back to the administration of Gordon Campbell (see above), none deeper than those of Hydro boss Jessica McDonald, who was Campbell’s deputy minister and a powerful force "behind the throne" from 2005 to 2009. Susan Yurkovich, executive vice-president for Site C, was a member of the Liberals’ 2005 election campaign committee.

Jobs Minister Shirley Bond served prominently in Gordo’s cabinet throughout his decade as premier. And right there in Christy Clark’s office is chief of staff Dan Doyle, a key government architect of the 2010 Winter Olympics, and chief political adviser Chris Gardner, a longtime political associate of treasured Campbell cabinet minister Kevin Falcon, when both were active in Surrey.

When he privately pressed his concerns, Sigurdson might as well have been wearing an old Adrian Dix campaign button for all that he got from this group. Union, schmunion.

Finally, with considerable fanfare, the building trades announced on Monday that they were taking BC Hydro to court, on the not-inconsiderable grounds that the Corporation’s restrictions on union organizing and the right to strike flew in the face of recent decisions by the Supreme Court of Canada.

Still, there was Shirley Bond later in the day defending Hydro and its need for "more flexibility" (code for weakening union rights). "We have to make sure that these projects move on time."

The strength of one

At that point, who should awake from her deep, satisfying slumber but the premier herself. What hast thou wrought, she roared at her now cowering staff and ministers and BC Hydro honchos. Whereupon, in the delightful words of columnist Vaughn Palmer, she delivered "an extraordinary swat up the side of the head to Hydro" for its flagrant attempt to outlaw union organizing at Site C.

"I don’t believe that’s legal, I don’t believe it’s right," quoth Clark, channeling her inner Jim Sinclair. "I believe they should have the right to organize and BC Hydro can’t take that away."

And lo and behold, after completely stonewalling the building trades on that very point, the relevant cabinet ministers and Jessica McDonald suddenly agreed with the premier. The clause too far would be withdrawn. Imagine that.

What’s that line in Solidarity Forever? "For what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one?" Well, if that force is Christy Clark, sometimes it’s not too feeble, at all. It’s a funny old B.C. world.  [Tyee]

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