BALDREY: Public/private divide evident in B.C. Fed

The two candidates running to replace Jim Sinclair as president of the B.C. Federation of Labour says a lot about the state of organized labour these days.

Both candidates are former longtime public sector union activists. Amber Hockin was a CUPE staff member, while Irene Lanzinger is a former president of the B.C. Teachers Federation.

The fact they are both from the public side of labour, rather than the private sector, is a crucial distinction.

Organized labour’s relevancy and influence has waned considerably in the private sector. Just 16 per cent of the private sector workforce in Canada is a member of a union; this compares to more than 70 per cent of public sector workers.

It’s notable that, as of this writing, only public sector unions had endorsed either candidate. I assume that eventually some private sector unions will back their candidacies, but clearly getting the backing of the more powerful public sector unions is more important.

To the best of my knowledge, the B.C. Federation of Labour has never been led by someone from a public sector union (Sinclair was from the old United Fisherman’s Union, while his predecessor, Ken Georgetti, was from the United Steelworkers and, before him, presidents Art Kube, Jim Kinnaird and Len Guy were all private sector union activists).

As a result, will a schism form within the Fed itself, one that pits the interests and priorities of public sector workers against those in the private sector? I’ve heard grumbling from private sector labour activists who feel Sinclair was pushed aside by public sector union interests.

And will either Hockin or Lanzinger continue to work – as Sinclair and Building Trades Council president Tom Sigurdson did – with Premier Christy Clark in a quasipartnership to boost skills training efforts to get more people into the trades to work on natural resource projects? Or will they fall back into a more antagonistic relationship with the government?

Whichever one of them wins, however, will mark a turning point in the history of organized labour in the province. Its glory days – when it could literally shut down the economy of B.C. – are clearly over, as it has largely become a government workerdominated organization.


It hasn’t made a final decision on whether or not to give the Site C dam the green light, but there is an emerging impression that any enthusiasm the B.C. Liberal government may have for the project is perhaps slowly waning.

That’s the impression I got after receiving an out-of-the-blue phone call last week from Energy Minister Bill Bennett, a guy you can usually count on to display strong support for anything that puts shovels in the ground and creates jobs.

Bennett phoned to dispute my earlier on-air characterization of him as being the chief cheerleader for Site C. Not so, Bennett told me. In fact, he said he was genuinely torn about whether the project should be built, and recounted to me the validity of all the opposing views he’s heard along the way.

More telling, perhaps, was his disclosure to me that the government caucus was "split" on whether the dam should be built.

Earlier that day, he acknowledged to the media that the project lacked any support from First Nations, and he told me he didn’t expect that to change any time soon.

A lack of First Nations support (indeed, there is instead considerable opposition to the project from that constituency) is just one of the factors stacking up against Site C. Bennett admitted to me that Site C’s estimated price tag of $8 billion would add hugely to the province’s debt load, and that was a concern. He also admitted other, smaller energy projects may just as easily answer the need of the province’s future energy demands.

In summary, he listed a lot more reasons why the dam shouldn’t be built than why it should. And remember, Bennett isn’t the kind of politician who "spins" things and sticks to a government message box. He can be counted on for bluntly telling you what he really thinks and, for now at least, he doesn’t seem to be on the Site C bandwagon.

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC.


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