The biannual convention of the 500,000-strong B.C. Federation of Labour, which begins Monday in Vancouver, could be one of the most pivotal in its long history. Fed president Jim Sinclair, voice of organized labour in the province since 1999, is facing his first serious election challenge, from Michelle Laurie of the electrical workers’ union. And it is the last Federation convention before next spring’s provincial election, with the labour-backed NDP enjoying a healthy lead in the polls. Mr. Sinclair, 58, has much to say about union expectations of and relations with their traditional allies.
What are labour demands, if the NDP forms the next government?
I have three really high-priority items. One is respect, second is respect, and the third one is respect. For instance, when they sit down at the table and redesign the apprenticeship training system so that it works again, I expect we’ll be at the table having significant input on that, along with business. Our opinions will be heard. We’ve been blacklisted and really ignored on so many cases by the Liberal government. They’ve spent their time attacking working people and not working with us. And yes, we have ideas on how to fix things. I wouldn’t characterize them as demands. I would characterize them as the ideas we need to change this province.
But you want a change in union organizing rules to allow automatic certification without a vote, if enough people sign a union card, right?
Yes. All we’re asking for is that it’s got to be a right, a democratic right, to join a union without fear of intimidation from your employer, and that’s not the case today. That needs to be fixed.
Has the NDP made any commitments to you?
The NDP has made no commitments at all, nor to almost anyone, as far as I know. Adrian [Dix, NDP Leader] has been very careful, and very cautious about what he’s saying.
Does it bother you that he has made no promises to organized labour?
No. I think he will make commitments to working people, not to the labour movement, because those are the changes we are looking for. When we talk about changes to the apprenticeship program, those are changes for working people. We talk about fixing the WCB [Workers’ Compensation Board], so you don’t take a pay cut when you’re injured on the job. That’s for all working people. I think organized labour will be successful when all workers are successful.
Yet a perception persists that there is some sort of unholy alliance between the NDP and the labour movement, which hurts the party, politically.
There’s nothing unholy about any of it. It’s simply the fact that we see the alternative to the Liberals as the NDP. That’s no secret. The labour movement is a legitimate part of society, and we expect, if the NDP is elected, that they will respect us. They will have us at the conversation about the economy, about creating good jobs, and that kind of stuff. I expect the NDP to also have an open-door policy with the business community. I don’t see anything wrong with that. In fact, I think that’s very important.
But does Adrian Dix cringe every time he sees you coming through the door?
No. Our relationship is very cordial. It’s certainly an open one. I expect that if I have a problem, I can go to Adrian or to any NDP MLA and sit down and discuss it with them, and I will be heard. That doesn’t mean, and I want to be very clear, that every time someone in the labour movement asks for something, they’re going to get it. That’s not the truth. We all know that. And it shouldn’t be the truth.
The public, however, is hardly rallying to union causes. Is that a sign of labour’s diminished status in the province?
That’s the popular belief, that it’s diminished. I don’t believe it is. We have as many members as we had 10 years ago. We are as active as we’ve ever been on issues. We’ve had fewer strikes, fair enough, and there have been some tough fights, for sure. But the biggest decline we’ve seen has been in labour reporters. We went from having labour reporters across the country, who paid attention to us, to basically none. It would be exciting to see a labour section in the paper every day, right beside the business section, but we don’t.
As one of those former labour reporters, however, I would suggest that labour is not the force it used to be.
I think labour is still a significant force. You can look at the past however you wish, but we are a critical force at bargaining tables in this province. We improve hundreds of thousands of people’s lives every year.
Meanwhile, you face opposition within your own ranks. Is that a reflection on your leadership?
Every time there’s an election, it creates debate in the labour movement about the direction we’re going. That’s happening, and I say more power to it.
Are you confident of winning re-election to a seventh term?
Yes, I’m confident.
This interview has been condensed and edited.