IN THE BEGINNING…THERE WAS DAVE BARRETT

Image 7Watching the joyous, almost giddy swearing-in of the province’s new premier and his gender-balanced cabinet, I couldn’t help thinking of BC’s very first transition of power to the NDP, so long ago the Vancouver Sun had two full-time labour reporters. That historic ground-breaker took place way back in 1972, or five years before David Eby, the province’s new Attorney General, was born. July 18 was only the third such right-to-left tilt in BC history. Of course, that’s three more than the zero Stanley Cups won by the hapless Canucks, and just enough to keep politics interesting and a semblance of two-party democracy alive in BC’s polarized environment. No wonder John Horgan couldn’t keep that big goofy grin off his face. But the circumstances could not have been more different than the first official visit to Government House by an NDP premier-in-waiting. No live TV, no tweets, no hoopla from First Nations dancers. Very little buzz at all. Yet it was a pivotal moment for the province, never to be the same again. So, for David Eby and “all you kids out there”, return with us now to that thrilling day of yesteryear, when NDP leader Dave Barrett succeeded the indomitable W.A.C. Bennett as premier of British Columbia.

Given the NDP’s string of 12 consecutive, electoral defeats, going back to the formation of its CCF predecessor in 1933, it was a day many thought they would never see in their lifetime. Against all expectations, however, the party’s 13th campaign proved lucky beyond imagining. On August 30, 1972, Bennett’s 20-year grip on power came to a decisive end. The NDP won a stunning, landslide victory that few, beyond Barrett and a few canny observers, saw coming. The hysteria, bedlam and sheer outpouring of joy at party headquarters that night was off the charts. The “socialist hordes” were inside the gates at last.

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Yet such was the strange, almost surreal, nature of the times, like Monty Python’s depiction of the dull life of Ralph Mellish, suddenly, nothing happened. Barrett had no idea when he would actually get to be premier. The shattered, 72-year old Bennett said nothing about how and when the transfer of power from Social Credit would take place. An eerie, political silence descended on Victoria. Unsure of protocol, for much of the next two weeks, Barrett sat at home in Coquitlam, twiddling his thumbs, waiting for a summons to Government House. Finally, on the morning of Sept. 15, Bennett officially resigned, and the long-anticipated, formal phone call from Deputy Provincial Secretary Lawrie Wallace came through. The boyish, joke-cracking, 41-year old social worker, son of an East Vancouver fruit peddler, would be sworn in that afternoon as premier of British Columbia, the first Jew and the first socialist to hold the province’s top elected position.

Still, given the absurdly short notice, Barrett had to hurry. He scrambled his wife and kids into the family Volvo and headed off to Tsawwassen for the ferry to Swartz Bay. The premier-to-be’s vehicle took its place in line with everyone else. Once on the other side, Barrett realized he didn’t know exactly where to go. Fishing a dime from his pocket, he used a pay phone at the ferry terminal to call Government House for precise directions. “I think he reached the gardener,” Shirley Barrett laughed later. Barrett parked the car in the visitors’ parking lot, and the family sauntered happily up the driveway. Barrett’s tie flapped casually in the breeze, his teenaged sons grudgingly wearing jackets, but tieless.

The new premier was sworn in before a few officials and associates, family and the media. As he signed the book, a photographer asked him to “look up, Mr. Premier”. Sun columnist Allan Fotheringham reported that Barrett displayed a look of surprised delight at hearing himself addressed as “premier” for the first time. Afterwards, he lifted a glass of champagne and proclaimed: “This breaks a 20-year fast.” Outside, queried how he felt, the province’s 26th premier replied: “I feel a little more honourable.”

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An hour later at the legislature, the province’s first socialist cabinet was sworn in. Fotheringham watched Barrett, closely. He wrote: “[He] wore a continuing grin of simple pleasure. It was not a smug, greedy look. Just a boyish failure to subdue his true feelings.” It was if he knew already his government would fundamentally change the province. There would be no hesitation, no turning back.

Four and a half decades later, it was the turn of another NDP leader to take the oath of office. This was a far more public, more high-spirited swearing-in than the low-key ceremony that ushered Dave Barrett into office. The ornate room at Government House was packed, befitting a date for the transition set well in advance, rather than by the back-of-the-envelope whim of Wacky Bennett. TV networks carried the ceremony live. First Nations dancers were front and centre. All 40 NDP MLA’s were there, brought to the august residence in a rented bus. “That’s the way I roll,” said Horgan.

The atmosphere could not have been more happy and relaxed. Lieutenant-Governor Judith Guichon, who made the critical, pressure-packed decision to reject Christy Clark’s request for an election and call on the NDP to give government a whirl, got into the spirit of things. After Horgan, while taking the first oath of office, awkwardly stopped at “I’, without repeating his full name, she quipped “He’s a quick learner”, when he got the second and third oath right. Her Majesty’s Representative also gave Agriculture Minister Lana Popham an affectionate hug, after Popham inked her name in the ceremonial book. It was that kind of affair.

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Now comes the hard part, of course. Governing is never easy, especially when so many are out to get you. But Horgan has wisely copied one of the positive pages from the Barrett playbook: bring in simple and popular measures that help those who need it most right off the bat. Besides quickly increasing the minimum wage and welfare rates, the Barrett government enacted as its first order of business a guaranteed “mincome” of $200 a month for the province’s senior citizens. The first program of its kind in North America, it remained the most cherished of all the far-reaching moves by the NDP over the next 39 months. Mincome, said Social Services Minister Norm Levi, represents “the unfinished work of the socialist movement in its concern for people of all ages”.

On his third day in office, Horgan hiked disability assistance and welfare rates by $100 a month, the first welfare increase in more than 10 years. It was a good start.

 

 

 

 

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MORE THAN YOU LIKELY EVER WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT GOVERNMENT NEGOTIATOR, PETER CAMERON

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( I have corrected the record on one point in this blog. I am informed Cameron did do some work for several public sector unions, after leaving the NDP provincial government in the mid-1990s. I wrote that he never returned to the union side of the bargaining table. I’ve changed the wording. Glad to set the record straight.)

With the teachers’ dispute predictably heating up, I thought it might be “fun” to take a look at the veteran labour relations practitioner at the head of the government’s bargaining table, someone I once knew well.

The last time I saw Peter Cameron, however, was in 2002, when I ran into him at the Vogue Theatre, before a speech by Naomi Klein.

But in the old days, when there were labour reporters, I may have talked to him as often as any trade union leader in B.C. Back then, Cameron was in the forefront of the dramatic expansion of CAIMAW, the militant, independent Canadian union that made big inroads into the B.C. mining industry during the 1970’s and 1980’s. They did this mostly by raiding bargaining units belonging to the United Steelworkers of America, taking advantage of the fact that many workers didn’t like what they considered poor representation by the Steelworkers, nor were they a fan of having their union headquarters in Pittsburgh. Cameron was CAIMAW’s chief mining negotiator, spearheading several long, difficult strikes and achieving real gains for union members. Tough and exceedingly smart, he cared deeply about improving the lot of workers, a commitment forged early on when, in defiance of his bourgeois background, Cameron joined the ultra-left Progressive Workers’ Party and took a job at the Phillips Cable plant in Vancouver. The PWP, which inevitably  fell apart, was headed by the legendary Jack Scott, once labelled by a national magazine as “the most radical man in Canada”.

Cameron was not a worker in the normal sense. He was more of an intellectual who threw in his lot with the working class during the highly-charged politics of the Sixties. But his undoubted intelligence and commitment attracted the admiration of Paul Weiler, the brilliant first chairman of the new B.C. Labour Relations Board, which became a labour relations beacon across North America during the mid-Seventies for its groundbreaking decisions under the NDP’s progressive new labour code. Unable to afford lawyers, CAIMAW often used Cameron to argue its cases before the LRB. Weiler was impressed by the young union representative’s grasp of labour law and his ability to hold his own against high-priced legal help on the other side. Cameron also thought highly of Weiler, who became a bit of a mentor. Much to the fury of the international unions and others within the so-called “house of labour”, Weiler engineered Cameron’s four-year appointment to the LRB as one of its union panelists.

However, none of that stopped Cameron from later provoking an angry scene at the LRB, after then board chairman Stephen Kelleher rejected CAIMAW’s application for a representation vote against the Steelworkers at the large Cominco smelter in Trail. (Incidentally, the head of the Steelworkers’ Trail local at the time was a young Ken Georgetti, who parlayed fending off CAIMAW into a rise in the ranks of labour to president of the BC Fed and then to the Canadian Labour Congress, where he presided for 15 years until his recent, surprising defeat.)

The normally even-tempered Cameron was apoplectic over the decision. A number of CAIMAW types subsequently occupied Kelleher’s office, which, given the quasi-judicial nature of the LRB, was not a cool thing to do. Cameron eventually apologized.

Not long afterwards, however, he had a bitter falling-out with the union that had given him a home for 15 years. He left CAIMAW (now part of Unifor) and shifted to the much milder Health Sciences Association, eventually becoming the HSA’s executive director in 1990. In 1991, the Google gods inform me, he was invited by the Democrat Socialists of America to give a speech in Oakland about the virtues of Canada’s health care system.

But the switch from CAIMAW militancy to the quasi-professional HSA seemed to spur a change in Cameron’s comfort level, away from confrontation on behalf of workers to a more sedate labour climate. In 1992, he was appointed assistant deputy health minister by the NDP, winding up on the employer’s side of the bargaining table for the first time. He liked it. Perhaps appreciative of the bigger bucks (tho he has never seemed to be in it for the money) and being allowed to operate in a rarefied atmosphere without being accountable to a pesky rank and file, Cameron only rarely acted for unions after that.

His high-water mark came quickly, when he helped broker a so-called “social contract” with B.C. health care workers not long after his deputy minister appointment. The package provided a shorter work week, more say in decision-making and job guarantees in community health care settings for union members, in return for accepting a 10 per cent cut in hospital jobs. It was a win-win deal at its best.

There’s been nothing like that under the tight-fisted Liberals, but that has not appeared to bother Cameron. As a hired gun negotiator, he has bought into the mantra of government-imposed wage restrictions, never shy about reminding unions that any settlement, no matter how minuscule, must be within mandated guidelines handed down from the finance minister. In 2012, before taking on the province’s modestly-paid social services workers, Cameron helpfully advised them that his mandate did not allow for any increase in global costs. Nice work, if you can get it…

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During the current set of talks with the province’s tenacious teachers’ union, the former hard-nosed union negotiator has upped the ante. At one point, he made the provocative  statement that meeting the teachers’ demands would threaten B.C.’s credit rating. It was a cheap shot from a smart guy, who knows full well that the teachers’ position at the table is a negotiating posture, and they would keel over in shock, if the government suddenly agreed to it.

As an aside, Cameron’s claim also flew in the face of some wise words from his former mentor, Paul Weiler. In a long-forgotten public sector dispute, Weiler brushed aside government arguments that it had no money to fund whatever wage increase might have been appropriate. Weiler reasoned that money decisions by governments are political, not fiscal. Governments can always access sufficient money to fund what they choose to fund. If they need more, they can raise taxes or other fees, said Weiler. If they choose not to do so, that’s a political decision, maybe even a good one. But it doesn’t mean the government has no money or can’t afford something.

At any rate, Cameron, backed by the government, is playing hardball against the province’s teachers, who have, until now, been playing softball. His professed outrage that the B.C. Teachers’ Federation has not reduced its wage demands is mostly showboating by a skilled bargainer playing to his government masters, the media and the public. Cameron knows that any salary deal, if there is one, will have little to do with what the teachers are asking, but will depend on when teachers feel the government has offered a package they feel they can accept. A decision by the BCTF to cut their demands by even 50 per cent, say, wouldn’t bring the parties that much closer to a settlement, since they would still be outside the government’s arbitrary wage limits. In fact, it’s a charade at best to suggest that any real negotiations can take place over wages, given the government’s guidelines in the sand. Besides, the main issue is class size and composition, not salaries.

Far worse was last week’s threat to cut teachers’ wages by 5 per cent, should they maintain their barely-noticeable job action, and by 10 per cent, should they move to Phase Two involving rotating strikes, which the BCTF announced Tuesday is exactly what they plan to do. That’s the sort of employer tactic that would have driven Cameron ballistic in the days when he was on the side of the workers.

Whatever the legality of the threat, it is quite a disproportionate response to teachers who have continued to fulfill their classroom teaching duties every day, compile report cards and involve themselves in after-school, extra-curricular student activities.

Cameron’s overkill was almost certainly designed not to pressure teachers, which is hard to do, but to provoke them, a far easier task. So now we have a scenario the government may have wanted all along – escalating job action by the province’s teachers, which could pave the way for another contract imposed by legislation. At the same time, every day the teachers are out saves the government a bucket full of money.

Of course, the government has every right to flex its confrontational muscle and hire a capable fella to represent them in bargaining against a difficult union, particularly someone who long ago abandoned his advocacy for workers.  They just shouldn’t pretend they’re the nice, reasonable guys in this troublesome dispute. Mind you, that kind of positioning is hardly new. It’s the age-old dance for public opinion, with both sides doing the venerable “we care about students” tango.

In the meantime, it’s hard to imagine a better gig for Peter Cameron, serene in the belief that he’s the smartest negotiator in the room, no messing around against mean mining companies, and being able to put the boots to your opponents on the other side of the table, while acting on behalf of an employer who holds almost all the cards, able to set wage limits the union cannot go beyond, with the power to legislate, if necessary. It’s a tough job but somebody has to do it.