Jim Sinclair’s BC Fed re-election could help redress labour relations’ balance of power in B.C.

Although union membership still carries a significant financial benefit … union density continues to decline

Jim Sinclair’s decisive re-election in November to the presidency of the BC Federation of Labour was as much a vindication of his leadership as it was a sign of the profound changes reshaping the province’s labour movement.

The 58-year-old Sinclair, now the federation’s longest-serving president, was first elected as the last NDP government was confronting the prospect of a devastating defeat. He’s now preparing for what he hopes will be the NDP’s long-awaited return to office.

His convention victory, by a two-to-one margin over an opponent who argued the federation was straying too far from core administrative responsibilities, was an explicit endorsement of his strong advocacy and engagement in labour and social issues.

But the union movement today is very different from the federation membership that put him in office in 1999, a change that is bound to have an impact on any new government’s labour policies.

That, in turn, should temper business reaction to those policies unless ideology trumps reason, as it usually does in B.C. politics.

Consider what’s changed since 1999. (Disclosure: I worked for Sinclair in a senior role twice during this period.)

Not one of the other union leaders who sat around the table when Sinclair took the helm remains in office. All have retired or, less frequently, been defeated in a re-election bid.

Even more striking is the disappearance of some of the major unions.

The once-mighty International Woodworkers of America has been absorbed by the Steelworkers, and two former heavy hitters, the Canadian Autoworkers and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers, have just forged their own merger agreement.

Today’s labour movement is predominantly a public-sector organization, reflecting the concerns of those affiliates as much or more than the issues worrying private-sector unions.

The union leadership has changed, the balance of public and private sector unionization has changed and the economy, once dominated by highly unionized resource industries, is going through its own transformations that hamper union organizing.

Although union membership still carries a significant financial benefit, with union members earning an average $26 an hour compared with the nearly $21 earned by the average non-union worker, union density continues to decline.

BC Business Council economist Jock Finlayson reports union density in the province has sunk to about 30%, still far ahead of U.S. levels but well below the 40% and more of a generation ago. More telling is the fact that B.C. union density, once far higher than the rest of the country, is about average.

(Total BC Federation of Labour membership has remained steady at about 450,000 members during Sinclair’s tenure thanks to mergers and some minimal organizing successes, but growth in union membership has not kept pace with growth in the work force.)

Regaining the ability to organize and bargain for new members is the crucial challenge facing unions everywhere, B.C. included. It’s as important today as the introduction of the anti-scab law was during Mike Harcourt’s NDP administration in the 1990s.

That’s why a key legal change, so-called “card check” certification, has been front and centre in the federation’s policy wish list. (Under card check, unions can be certified if the labour board is satisfied that a majority have signed union cards, without the necessity of a vote.)

If an NDP government grants that wish, B.C.’s unions would still have to rally major resources to undertake sustained and determined organizing drives, something many lack the resources or experience to carry out. Would today’s generation of leadership take up that challenge? Will B.C.’s employers go to the wall to stop such a change?

Under Sinclair’s leadership, B.C.’s union movement survived more than a decade of relentless antagonism from the provincial government with its membership and structure largely intact. Despite his profound differences with some business leaders, he has good working relationships and knows how to bargain.

Some redressing of the balance of power in labour relations makes sense, particularly in view of the widening inequality in B.C.’s economy.

Sinclair’s re-election victory suggests the labour rank and file have given his team a mandate to finish the job he started in 1999. There are good reasons for business to seek a constructive relationship with such a seasoned campaigner. •

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