Laird
Credit: Jennifer Gauthier

Looking beyond COVID-19, the labour leader makes the case for workers’ rights

1. Whom does the BCFed represent, and what is its mission?

The BCFed represents nearly half a million workers through more than 50 affiliated unions. Our mission is to advance the rights, protections and safety of all workers in B.C.

2. As B.C. and the rest of the world struggle with the health, social and economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, why does organized labour matter? 

This pandemic has highlighted gaps in workplace protections and the social safety net. It has demonstrated the need for the very things the labour movement has long advocated: strong worker rights—like protected and paid sick leave, living wages, and occupational health and safety protections—and robust social supports.

It’s now blatantly clear that lower-wage workers—whether in grocery stores, food delivery or the care sector—never performed work of less value. Their pay and benefits should reflect that value, and that’s the kind of thing unions fight for every day, not just in a crisis.

3. Unionization rates have plunged in Canada since the 1980s, and at 29 percent last year, according to Statistics Canada, B.C. has some of the lowest participation in the country. What accounts for that drop, and how can you turn things around?

The troubling drop in union density is mostly the result of attacks on unions by right-wing governments seeking to erode worker rights. In B.C. under the previous government, this included privatizing many unionized public sector jobs to drive down wages. In the private sector, it meant changes to the labour code that rigged the system and made it harder and harder for workers to form or join a union. 

Compounding all of this has been a shift in the labour market from the resource sector and other traditionally unionized sectors in B.C. to the service sector. Add a move by many businesses to cut costs by using contract and precarious workers, and you have a perfect storm. 

We work hard every day to turn this tide. A big part of that work is communicating with and organizing workers in more-precarious sectors with few workplace protections. We did this, for example, when we campaigned to ensure that ride-share drivers for Uber and Lyft had access to basic employment protections like minimum wages, workers’ compensation and employment insurance. But we also need to push governments to make policy and legislative changes that make it easier for workers to organize and join unions. 

4. The BCFed has called for a fair and equitable economy for all. How is B.C. doing on that front, and what are three key things that need to happen?

After years of growing inequality, the B.C. NDP government has made significant progress in reversing the damage of years of social service deficits. Key to this has been boosting the minimum wage and improving employment standards. Eliminating the regressive MSP tax and improving overall tax progressivity has also meant more resources to invest in key inequality-fighting programs like child care, housing and Indigenous self-determination.

But we need to make a lot more progress. Three measures that would help are, first, further changes to the labour code—to make it easier to form and join a union, and to develop a sectoral bargaining model to help workers in gig and contract-dominated sectors unionize. Second, lift everyone out of poverty, starting with more support for injured workers through much-needed changes to the Workers’ Compensation Board, and a significant lift to income and disability assistance rates. And third, in the wake of COVID-19, we need massive public investment to grow social programs, build green infrastructure and expand public goods like transit, child care and sustainable forest management. 

5. What do you say to people who accuse unions of making businesses less efficient and competitive?

It’s an outdated and inaccurate picture that unfortunately continues to be spread by certain voices on the right. Ultimately, long-term economic growth can only be stable if working people share in that growth and have dignity in their work.

Laird Cronk essentials

Cred: Red Seal electrician; board member, provincial Industry Training Authority

Hobby: Working out and motorcycle riding

Favourite place in B.C.: Ogden Point, or anywhere along the ocean, in Victoria

Last book I read: Memory Man by David Baldacci

Most memorable concert: ZZ Top at the Pacific Coliseum in the early ’80s

Can’t leave home without: My International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Challenge Coin

Guilty pleasure: Salt-and-vinegar chips