It’s Labour Day again. Time to celebrate the achievements of working people and organized labour.
For B.C. premier Christy Clark, it’s a time to thank B.C.’s labour leaders for all they are doing to help her party’s re-election, as she basks in the cameras’ loving glow.
Actually, Labour Day may be her favourite holiday, ready-made for more gushing photo ops, replete with hard hats, coveralls, heavy machinery and plenty of unionized workers.
It’s the perfect prop to reinforce her claim to fame as B.C.’s reigning queen of "climate-be-damned" job promotion, aided and abetted by her partners-in-mime in the mainstream media and at Resource Works.
One thing is certain, this annual celebration of all that unions have accomplished since Canada’s first Labour Day was held in the 1880s is no longer dreaded by the anti-union "powers that be."
On the contrary, the B.C. Liberals view it as a prime opportunity to marginalize both B.C.’s "labour party" and the union movement itself.
Premier exploits changes in economic climate
Globalization, the 2008 economic crash, and the new challenges to obtaining social licence for almost any resource development project have changed everything.
No longer are the company honchos and their unionized counterparts engaged in the age-old battles over workers’ rights and incremental improvements in salaries, benefits, and working conditions.
Sure, they still quibble at the margins of what is "economically viable" in today’s context of tighter profit margins, increased capital risk, unrelenting market volatility, and easy capital flight.
But for the most part, they are now joined at the hip in a death battle against the new common "enemies" that have made the past arguments for new worker benefits and entitlements a near pointless proposition.
They are united against the "forces of No" that Clark so delights in defining as John Horgan’s NDP. The greens, the NIMBYs, and the anti-development crowd. The ones who have the audacity to resist stupid investments that would pose unacceptable risks to our environment to our communities.
They are united in the fight against that faceless force known as "global competition"—a material threat that obliges union workers to help continually cut corporate costs as they increase productivity, or risk losing their jobs and their employers’ businesses altogether.
They are united in the new struggle to pad shareholders’ pockets in this harsh new world of rock-bottom commodity prices, unfettered capital and labour mobility, surplus capacity, state-owned mega corporations, and dependence on Chinese exports and investment.
Thank you, free trade. Who knew there really were limits to growth, or cares even now to face up to that root problem that is so anathema to so much of what we purport to hold dear?
Public sector unions on the defensive
Even in the public sector, newly challenged by the public’s rising hostility to tax hikes, service cuts, and deficit financing, the unions have largely acquiesced to their employers’ increasingly inflexible "ability to pay" narrative.
I should know. I did more than most to help drive that narrative through my various roles in B.C. politics, especially during my time in Gordon Campbell’s government.
That administration literally beat the crap of the public sector unions, through fair means and foul. Including by unilaterally ripping up contracts and stripping away benefits that were won over many years through hard-fought collective bargaining.
As I wrote in my ebook in 2012, that was morally indefensible and wrong on so many levels. Too bad, it served its crass political purpose.
To this day, the unions have never recovered from the thrashings they took in the first years of the Campbell government, which the public essentially rewarded with successive electoral victories in 2005, 2009 and 2013.
In essence, the public sector unions threw in the towel on the thrust of their demands, induced by the one-time, signing-bonus scheme that former finance minister Carole Taylor spearheaded in 2006. And equally, by their conviction that the B.C. Liberals would be re-elected—a self-fulfilling prophecy if there ever was one.
The unions and their centrist liberal wannabes in the NDP under Carole James and Adrian Dix all unwittingly helped to perpetuate the Campbell-Clark governments’ 15-year hold on power through their "modern way" of doing business.
And they’re in the process of extending that stretch by another four years, convinced by the legislative press gallery scribes and minor celebrities that they can only win if they mimic their oppressors.
Whether they know it or not, most of those private and public sector union leaders have been indirectly propping up the Clark government by "playing nice".
Some have even gone so far as to participate in the premier’s photo ops aimed at co-opting them in support of her agenda and at aggravating their apparent rifts within the NDP.
Such was organized labour’s death-spiral response to falling unionization rates, including a 13 percent decline in British Columbia from 1981-2012—the steepest drop in Canada.
Clark can rest easy in new labour climate
Everywhere, militant bargaining is out and so-called "mature" bargaining is in, led by a new breed of "realistic" and "pragmatic" labour leaders.
The invisible bunch.
The ones who get applauded by the media for abandoning the strategies that won so much for their members in the last century.
The ones at whom Christy Clark is laughing.
Union protests and mass rallies are long gone.
Worker days lost due to strikes and lockouts have fallen year after year to record lows.
Inflation-based wage settlements marked by union concessions in benefits, contracting out, and working conditions are the new norm.
All good things, you say? Indeed, except for those who have forfeited so much by their obeisance, cooperation, and ever lower expectations of what might be achieved at any bargaining table.
These days, the unions don’t dare ask for any material improvements to the Labour Code or to employment standards, save their applaudable push for a $15 per hour minimum wage.
They don’t want to provoke the government or its anti-union allies, lest they lose more than they have already lost from their tormentors.
Nor do they want to tar the NDP with its "labour party" brush by being too visible on its behalf.
B.C. NDP needs more help from unions
The New Democrats seem equally content to distance themselves from that formal affiliation that has always been used by their opponents to paint them as somehow "radical" or beholden to Big Labour.
Nor do the unions feel much like contributing the cash the NDP needs to fight the B.C. Liberals, which Horgan has admirably sworn to disavow for all time if elected, through his party’s commendable pledge to outlaw all union and corporate political donations.
Fact is, the unions have not done very much at all to help remind voters of the myriad reasons to dump the Clark government.
More than anything, they have gone silent. No advertising. No vocal support. And no organized critiques of their nemeses’ record in power.
All of which the New Democrats so desperately need to stand any chance at permanently wiping that overconfident smile off of Christy Clark’s increasingly complacent face.
When the union leaders do pipe up, it is usually to give their own party leader a backhanded slap.
Such as with the infamous internal memo from the United Steelworkers of Western Canada that garnered so much media attention earlier this year.
Or with the earlier, very public dressing-down from the B.C. and Yukon Building and Construction Trades Council, slamming John Horgan for blindsiding its members with his opposition to the environmentally problematic Pacific NorthWest LNG project, via his quietly delivered letter to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency.
Both were unexpected gifts from the political gods to Christy Clark.
They mostly served to further amplify the unions’ previous damnation of Adrian Dix for his "Kinder surprise", which played a key role in costing his party the last election.
Both were vicious slaps in the chops to Horgan, who later felt obliged to apologize for failing to first consult his union brothers and sisters, slighted as they were by "getting so little" in return for their modest donations to his cause.
All of which goes a long way towards explaining this basic truth: Labour Day is in the process of being appropriated by the corporate bosses and by their "free enterprise" political affiliates.
They now see it as a day to rally public support for all they think they are doing to protect and create "good, high-paying jobs" in the face of the NDP "threat".
This Monday, make no mistake, Clark will be laughing all the while, buoyed by her party’s sizeable lead in the opinion polls and by how successfully she has branded herself as the "pro-jobs leader". Including with the help of so many who want to throw her out of office.
She will be chuckling at the fact that most British Columbians don’t have a clue who is even leading most of B.C.’s unions.
Labour leaders no longer have a high profile
Skill testing question: who is the leader of the B.C. Federation of Labour?
Here’s a hint. It’s not Ken Georgetti or Jim Sinclair. Both super effective leaders, in my opinion.
OK, so maybe you know that it is Irene Lanzinger. That’s right, she hasn’t been the leader of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation for some time now.
Which begs the question: who is the leader of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation?
Nope, not Jenny Sims. Not the guy with the unique hair and mustache. It’s a new guy, Glen Hansman.
What about the United Steelworkers? Or the B.C. and Yukon Building and Construction Trades Council?
The Public and Private Workers of Canada? The B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union? The BCNU? The HEU? The HSA? CUPE? Unifor?
There was a time, not so long ago, when many of those unions’ leaders were household names.
Their faces were well known. And their collective cause, if not their individual missions, was well understood and broadly supported.
How the mighty have fallen.
Perhaps it was inevitable, a consequence of their organizations’ own successes in fighting for things as if they really mattered. And more than that, actually winning so many of those battles for their members, employing political hardball tactics that those of us on the right hated so much because they so often worked so well.
Perhaps it was only possible in that bygone age of boundless prosperity and above all, hope. An age when the whole need for organized labour was so much more readily apparent to a working world that hadn’t yet realized its gains by coasting on the unions’ coattails without having to engage in their battles.
Regardless, the unions have made their bed. Now they must either lie in it, or resolve to remake it yet again, to the extent it’s possible and desirable in our postindustrial relations world.
I submit, as someone who once also chuckled at the unions’ collective march toward increasing political irrelevance, they really need to "grow a pair".
Which is to say, they need to recognize that the political "strategy" they have been following for most of the last two decades has been a wimpy, abysmal failure.
They need to resolve to stand up boldly, proudly and vocally for the hard things they want to achieve and make voters value.
Because people are only ever persuaded by those who first get their attention. By leaders who are passionate enough themselves about the things they care about that they refuse to be silenced. Especially by those who just want to shut them up, so that no one will ever care about anything they are doing or saying.
Jumping in bed with the ones who mean to do you harm is never a wise decision. It’s just a way of getting badly screwed. No one needs to get that more than the private sector unions.
Large media companies marginalize Big Labour
In the meanwhile, the slow downfall of organized labour is something to reflect upon this Labour Day when you are quietly seething at Christy Clark’s command of that hallowed day that she hopes to stand on its head for her party’s political advantage.
Oh, sure, you might see the odd clip of a union leader, dutifully identified as such for the vast majority of viewers who likely wouldn’t recognize him or her they tripped over them.
You might even see a few fleeting images of John Horgan trying to reassert the NDP’s claim as B.C.’s only real champion of unionized workers.
But on Monday, I’ll bet it will be the B.C. Liberals’ most telegenic "working gal" who is likely to garner the most media attention from her unofficial boosters in the mainstream media.
It’s just the usual, reciprocal symbiosis between those anti-union forces for "free enterprise", each happily feeding off their mutual interest in marginalizing Big Labour to benefit each other and to bring home the bacon.
Be it in the form of money, messaging, votes, or power.
The media barons at Shaw/Global, Bell/CTV, and Postmedia all surely know who wears the pants—or at least the dirty-work-jumpsuits—in their political promotion-for-revenue relationships with Big Oil and its puppet premier.
It is reason enough for B.C.’s top LNG booster to smile.
As if she needs another on Labour Day, in view of all of the other assistance she is being accorded by the union brass and by its hopelessly conflicted allies in Victoria, whose blue collar leader is obviously so uncomfortable wearing his party’s ecowarriers’ admirably green fatigues.