On Thursday, a record number of delegates to the biannual convention of the B.C. Federation of Labour elected Fed secretary-treasurer Irene Lanzinger as the 500,000-member organization’s new president. Lanzinger was supported by outgoing leader Jim Sinclair. Yet she nipped challenger Amber Hockin by a mere 57 votes, indicating deep division within the labour movement over its future direction. Many felt it was time for a change. Still, few would dispute that Lanzinger, in replacing Sinclair at the helm of the Fed, will have a tough act to follow.
During his unprecedented 15-year run as head of the Fed, there was never any doubt which side Jim Sinclair was on. More than almost any previous head of the century-old trade union body, he was an activist leader. Whether taking on government, supporting strikes no matter how small, protesting global worker injustices, or advocating for his great passion – workplace safety, Sinclair was always ready to lend a hand and his high-pitched, foghorn voice to the fight. The former newspaper man threw himself into issues in a very personal way to advance the interests of workers, on the picket line, at rallies and demonstrations, in the media and behind the scenes.
Nor was his commitment confined to members of the Federation. It was a signature feature of his leadership that all workers, regardless of whether they held a union card, deserved help when they were dealt a bad hand.
Two examples, among many, particularly stand out: Sinclair’s compassionate advocacy for families and victims of a deadly release of toxic gas at a Langley mushroom farm, and his tireless, ultimately successful, campaign to protect late-night workers, following the death of gas station employee Grant DePatie, killed trying to prevent a gas-and-dash robbery. Today, we have “Grant’s Law”, in large measure due to Jim Sinclair.
At the same time, Sinclair has also presided over a rather grim decade and a half for organized labour. The BC Liberals have won four successive elections, wage increases are barely keeping up with historically-low inflation, and the percentage of B.C. workers belonging to unions now hovers around the level of the workforce in (gasp) Prince Edward Island. Candidates running for a change in direction by the Federation have taken dead aim at this, calling the drop from 40 to 31per cent unionization the largest provincial decline of its kind in the country.
Yet it seems unfair to blame Jim Sinclair so directly for these depressing matters. The B.C. economy has mostly limped along in recent years, government austerity is the name of the game, once highly-unionized resource industries are shadows of their former selves, while the Liberal government’s ending of automatic union certifications when a majority of the workforce has signed up put a huge crimp in union organizing drives.
Although opponents contend that Sinclair and the Fed could have fought more effectively against these developments, no one questions his heartfelt dedication to the struggle, and, yes, some significant achievements. In fact, there were so many tributes and accolades showered his way during the first two days of this week’s convention, I was reminded of a past convention long ago, when then Fed president Len Guy told a skeptical reporter (me): “It’s a love-in, you sausage.”
There were two video tributes, a succession of speakers extolling Sinclair’s leadership and efforts on their behalf, a typically fiery, keynote speech by the man, himself, that prompted eight standing ovations, and, finally, an announcement of a scholarship in his name attached to the Labour Studies program at Simon Fraser University.
It was a long and winding road for Sinclair, now 60, to the top of the B.C. labour movement. I’d known him for years before he surprised everyone but himself by becoming president of the Fed in 1999. We were often at the same parties, Sinclair clunking around on the dance floor in his logging boots or tirelessly talking “social issues” in the kitchen, as the bottles of beer in the fridge slowly disappeared. He was also a fixture at good old Co-op Radio back in the day when I, too enjoyed myself so much behind the mike at the station’s Pigeon Park studio. Sinclair, of course, was far more serious.
He covered pipeline hearings in the far north, spent three years at the Conrad Black-owned Nelson Daily News before being fired for criticizing the paper’s “editorial bias”, worked 18 years for the United Fishermen and Allied Workers’ Union, until surprisingly, the Fed presidency beckoned, just before the Liberals ousted the NDP from government. I also learned this week that Sinclair walked his first picket line at 17, and once lived at Vancouver’s legendary dive, the Cobalt Hotel. Through it all, he has never wavered a moment in his drive to uproot injustice and speak for the voiceless and underdogs in our society.
And not only that. For anyone to survive so long in the rough and tumble world of union politics, where longstanding feuds and back room disagreements are so rife, is an accomplishment, itself.
Still, after 15 years, Sinclair’s time seemed to be up within the Federation. Although he might have squeaked back in, growing internal division over his leadership style and effectiveness made the result uncertain. Sinclair chose to step down now, rather than risk defeat.
He leaves a legacy of hands-on union activism that few would deny. “The labour movement is my life, my family, my home,” an emotional Sinclair told delegates, as he opened his last convention as president. “I may be stepping down, but I’m not leaving this movement. You’ve heard that I first walked a picket line when I was 17. That changed my life. Now I’m telling you: ‘When I am 77, I will still be out there on the picket line with you.”
Later, after a lengthy special tribute to his leadership on Tuesday afternoon, Sinclair deflected praise for helping out individuals and workers who were outside the ranks of the Federation. “I don’t care what movement they’re part of. They are part of us.”