Exit interview: Jim Sinclair talks past, present, and future of the labour movement

Photo: Flickr/miguelb

Although he was born in Toronto, Jim Sinclair has all the credentials of a B.C. union heavyweight.

Sinclair began his working career as a journalist in both radio and print, and eventually joined the United Fishermen and Allied Workers' Union -- a union known for its long history of radical politics and radical organizing. There, he served as an associate editor at the Fisherman's Newspaper. He became Health and Safety Director and then staff rep. In his final 8 years with the Fisherman, Sinclair served as the elected leader of the union before being elected president of the BC Federation of Labour in 1999. Sinclair’s journalistic legacy is the contribution he made to the creation of the BC news site The Tyee in 2003. 

For the majority of Sinclair's 15 years as president of the BC Federation of Labour, the labour movement has contended with anti-union governments in British Columbia. Nevertheless, the Federation has grew by more than 75,000 members, as unions representing teachers and Workers’ Compensation Board employees joined the central labour body. 

Jim Sinclair is not running for re-election in the upcoming BC Federation of Labour elections. He sat down with rabble.ca to talk about his views on the labour movement. This interview has been edited and condensed.

I know you grew up around Toronto, so how did you get to British Columbia?

In 1973 the Coup in Chile happened and I was quite involved in the solidarity work. I went to work for the Latin American Working Group and when I was 21 I was kind of done with that and a friend said "hey I'm going to Vancouver, why don't you come with me?" and I said "That sounds like a plan" and so I got a hundred bucks together and got on a train and ended up in Vancouver when I was 21.

I moved into the Cobalt Hotel on main street in what we call gastown or skid row. I thought it was going to be horrendous but really it was an old folks home for old miners and fisherman and loggers and it was just a completely different experience. I got involved in politics in Vancouver because the Downtown Eastside Renters' Association was trying to organize a rent strike and I got involved trying to organize a rent strike in my hotel.

So eventually you end up at the Fisherman's Union?

I got hired by the Fisherman's Union to work on their newspaper and that was the union newspaper that came out every two weeks. It was a great education. You were everything there there was no jurisdiction between staff. So I worked on the newspaper, I worked on health and safety, I was an organizer full time spring and summer, basically. You had to organize every fisherman every year, so we got bargaining rights through sheer force of will and power. It was pretty amazing. Fisherman had to join, we had to sign them up every year. And they would pay in cash, we'd collect a cheque for them for their full dues, or they would give us a voucher and we'd take it to the company to pay off their settlements.

That's a pretty unconventional union setting.

You learn a lot about unity because you had fishermen, shore workers, and packing workers in the same union. And the company spent most of their time trying to tell them that they shouldn't be together because they were all different. And we spent most of our time trying to make sure that we were together and united and had one union.

The fishing industry on the West Coast was declining in the 1990s, there were a lot of plant closures and stuff.

Ya it was tough going. As soon as the Free Trade went through, [the companies] started renting plants across the border and they came to the bargaining table and said, "Here's the collective agreement from the United States. You have to have the same collective agreement or we'll send our business south." That collective agreement was about $5 an hour less, in some cases $8 less than the pay we were getting in Canada. The two choices you're given by the companies are (1) you can import the conditions from another country or (2) we'll export the work to that other country. 

That became a critical piece of my understanding of the world: you had to have power in more than one place.

If you only buy their arguments, there's only one trail you are on and that's down. So we had a bitter dispute, very bitter and we eventually settled and ended up in arbitration. And we got rid of the two tiered wages they were offering us. And I'll say I was so proud of people because the workers in the shore plants said no, they would not settle a contract with two-tiered wages. They weren't going to sell out the next generation.

As for the future of labour, what challenges do you see on the road up ahead and where should we put our energy going forward?

The first thing is we have to put our energy into representing all working people. The problem and the defeat of the labour movement is that they spend 99% of the time dealing with their members. When really the question for the labour movement is are you a movement of working people or are you a movement of members only? And that's an age-old debate in the labour movement.

I come from the tradition, and actually I think it's the only way we are going to survive, is that we are not seen to be a job trust for people who get good benefits. And we cannot afford to have people who are low wage workers in this society divided from us. And we have to demonstrate day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, that we are a movement of working people. The fact that they aren't fortunate enough to have a union card isn't their fault, we are going to fight for them too, we're there for them too.

The other challenge is that we have to turn back the right-wing ideology that says that governments are bad; public sector workers are lazy and overpaid, their pensions are gold-plated, and that the best way you can have freedom is by yourself.

The fact is that we cut taxes in B.C. by billions of dollars and services went down, [the cost of] education went up, health care got stretched, senior got punished, kids got punished and at the end of the day we ended up with a far worse place to live and all those working people who got taxes are all paying more for other stuff by the government. It was a sham.

We have to be part of democracy or we can't survive as the union movement. So we have to be better at it, we have to be engaged at it, we have to put more resources to it. If we don't participate in democracy and our members stay home and don't vote and are apathetic then shame on us we need to do a better job. They got to vote for people who represent their interests. And that doesn't mean that we are tied to any political party. Obviously we support the NDP, but we have to have an agenda and we have to go out there and fight for that every day, not every four years. And we have to change this debate. 

When you ran for President of the Federation what did you hope to accomplish?

I wanted an activist labour movement, a labour movement that was out there on the front line of changing the world. And I wanted a united labour movement, one that people worked together to really make a difference for people. And you know, the affiliates here, I inherited a really strong tradition in B.C. of militancy and standing up for people and I'm just one little piece of that. I had my little part to play in that. And I hope that I played my part well. That's all I can ask.

How do you feel about watching the BC Federation elections from the sidelines? 

It’s going to be strange, there's no doubt lt about it.

But I am endorsing Irene Lanzinger for president. She's a strong labour leader, was the former president of the BCTF [B.C. Teachers Federation], I worked closely with her for 4 years, and she embraces the kind of trade unionism that I do. Never been shy to express my opinions.

I would say that for people who are coming in to the labour movement today. It is one of the most amazing movement ever. I look at my life and know how much I was changed for the better by the labour movement as a person. And I just want to take the chance to thank all the people for years and years who actually encouraged and supported me, argued with me, all of it. Because it all made a better labour movement and a better place for me.

Ella Bedard is rabble.ca's labour intern. She has written about labour issues for Dominion.ca and the Halifax Media Co-op and is the co-producer of the radio documentary The Amelie: Canadian Refugee Policy and the Story of the 1987 Boat People. She now lives in Toronto where she enjoys chasing the labour beat, biking and birding.

Photo: flickr/Miguelb

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