Sinclair earned respect from a Liberal premier
Labour: Improved relationship no small feat for departing Fed leader
When Jim Sinclair takes leave of the presidency of the B. C. Federation of Labour next month, he’ll do so at the end of a challenging 15 years for himself and the labour movement.
He took over the leadership of the province’s half- a- millionstrong unionized workforce in the spring of 1999, just as labour’s power was waning in B. C.
His predecessor Ken Georgetti had exercised extraordinary influence, thanks to a close relationship with the then- New Democratic Party government that earned him the nickname of the unelected 19th minister in an 18- member cabinet.
That cosy relationship reached its pinnacle in June 1996, when the legislature reconvened following the NDP victory in the provincial election.
As the re- elected NDP MLAs filed into the chamber on throne speech day, they were greeted on the floor of the house by guest-of-the- government Georgetti, his presence reminding all concerned of labour’s role in securing an unprecedented second term of office for the NDP.
But as the NDP’s hold on power faltered under thenpremier Glen Clark, Georgetti moved on to higher office, becoming head of the Canadian Labour Congress in May 1999, just a few months before Clark was forced out.
Sinclair, for his part, sought and won the leadership of the Fed by positioning himself as the outsider against establishment choice Patrice Pratt, a public service union functionary and former president of the NDP.
Sinclair hailed from the left side of the labour movement, having long served in the leadership of the militant fisherman’s union. ( He also worked as a newspaper reporter, but I wouldn’t hold that against him.)
But the glory days of labour militancy were past for the private sector unions based in the declining resource industries. Instead, it fell to Sinclair to preside over an era of accommodation and most of the crises he faced involved the public sector unions.
Two years into his tenure as
Sinclair rightly drew attention to his tireless campaigns for union and non- union workers alike, on everything from workplace safety and apprenticeships, to employment standards and the minimum wage.
head of the Fed, the New Democrats were all but liquidated in an election that saw the party’s standing in the house reduced to just two MLAs.
Premier Gordon Campbell and his victorious B. C. Liberals, resentful of labour’s role as handmaid to the NDP, set out to redress what they saw as sweetheart deals between the ousted government and the public sector unions.
Recognizing that the Liberals, with their lopsided majority, held all of the cards, Sinclair and other labour leaders put out feelers, suggesting that the unions would be prepared to negotiate some concessions.
The winners weren’t in a mood for conciliation. Ignoring the advice of some of their own advisers, the Liberals simply convened the legislature and broke the contracts, with as little as 30 minutes notice to the affected unions.
In retrospect, the government would have been wiser to go the route suggested by Sinclair. For when the Supreme Court of Canada reversed the province’s contract- shredding spree a few years later, it faulted the Liberals for not at least trying to negotiate before wielding the legislative hammer.
One residue of that ill- advised decision will play out in Vancouver this week, as the B. C. Court of Appeal hears a case that has its roots in the legislative breaking of the teachers’ contract.
The standoff over contract-breaking was not the only time during Campbell’s 10- year tenure that Sinclair was a voice crying in the political wilderness. He was seldom consulted about anything, even on matters like workplace safety and skills training where labour could have played a constructive role.
Not to say that there wasn’t plenty of blame on both sides for the near- dialogue of the deaf between labour and the Campbell government. Sinclair and the Fed worked long and hard to rebuild the New Democrats and they rarely had a good word to say about anything the government tried to do.
Still, as evidence of a more constructive approach, no need to look any further than the example set by Campbell’s successor, Premier Christy Clark. Declaring herself to be “not a sore winner” following the hardfought 2013 election, she sought out Sinclair and other labour leaders for their input and support on a series of initiatives on skills training and job creation.
To his credit, Sinclair reciprocated the overture, even as he joked that when he first got the call from the Liberal premier, he figured it might be a wrong number: “Who is this really? C’mon.”
Still, it was also time for a change on his side. In announcing this week that he would not seek another term as president of the Fed, the 60- year- old Sinclair emphasized that he was not retiring, only moving on to other challenges.
It was the only hint that he might be facing a challenge from the new generation of labour leaders, much as Georgetti himself did last spring, when he lost the top spot at the CLC to Hassan Yussuff.
In a leave- taking statement that began “Dear sisters and brothers,” Sinclair rightly drew attention to his tireless campaigns for union and non- union workers alike, on everything from workplace safety and apprenticeships, to employment standards and the minimum wage.
He could also say that he served long enough to see labour again be shown the proper respect in the office of the premier — and from a B. C. Liberal, no less.