B.C. Premier Christy Clark has long been cast as an enemy of organized labour. Her B.C. Liberal government has a history of contract-stripping and tough budget cuts that shrank the size of government. She was the minister of education who, 12 years ago, triggered a war with the B.C. Teachers' Federation over class size and classroom support for special needs.
For all those reasons, the news that the BCTF president, Jim Iker, quietly sat down with the Premier on Sept. 12 to find a way to end a five-week-long school strike was met by some trade unionists – especially angry teachers – with disbelief.
The meeting, however, fits into a larger pattern. Ms. Clark has opened her office door to labour leaders when they share a mutual interest.
The labour movement had high hopes that the 2013 provincial election would see the return of a New Democratic Party government in B.C. Instead, once the ballots were counted, Ms. Clark was back in office. Some union leaders decided it was time to work with her rather than to stand outside and fight.
Tom Sigurdson, executive director of the B.C. Building and Construction Trades Council, and Jim Sinclair, president of the B.C. Federation of Labour, were the first to find their way into the premier's office since the Liberals came to power in 2001. Mr. Sigurdson and Mr. Sinclair have shared the stage with Ms. Clark on joint efforts to boost skills training.
In April, Jerry Dias, national president of Unifor, held a joint news conference with Ms. Clark to announce the end of the Port Metro Vancouver strike. At that time, Mr. Dias praised the Premier for her role in securing a deal.
It was Mr. Dias who brought Ms. Clark together with Hassan Yussuff, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, to talk about the teachers' dispute. Mr. Yussuff had promised a new style of leadership of the CLC when he defeated incumbent Ken Georgetti four months ago. His intervention in the B.C. labour dispute offers a glimpse of his tactics.
In an interview last week, Mr. Yussuff explained that he didn't allow Ms. Clark's reputation change his approach: He wanted to help settle the teachers' dispute and he believed it was essential to get the premier and the head of the teachers' union to sit down and build some trust.
"No matter how much disagreement you may have had with somebody, you have to put those things aside and focus on the issue at hand. This was not, in my view, a political desire to somehow think we were going to defeat the government or cause them grief," he said.
"Being an outsider from B.C., I think I was a little less clouded in my judgment as to the need to have that conversation and not to prejudge what she might say about how we could get to a settlement."
Mr. Iker was elected as the head of the BCTF in March 2013, just as negotiations were getting underway for the contract that was settled last week. Soft-spoken and calm, he also promised a new style of leadership.
In an interview shortly after his members ratified the settlement that saw schools re-open this week, Mr. Iker said he was always prepared to reach out and work with Ms. Clark's government. It was the premier's office that had rebuffed him until now.
"I don't have any animosity with the Premier, we always wondered why she wouldn't meet with us," he said. "There have been issues with the relationship with this government – I don't know if you want to call it bad blood, maybe there is a difference of core values... but you have to work with government."
Justine Hunter is The Globe's B.C. legislative reporter in Victoria.